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Apple and proximity make a great team

By Dan Murrell / July 14, 2014


Apple and proximity make an unbeatable team

In 2013, Apple made proximity a thing with its quiet introduction of iBeacons at WWDC. In 2014, Apple is making proximity the thing.

Technologists certainly saw this coming—we’ve been hearing about the coming “Internet of Things” for a few years—but with so many different pieces of technology speaking just as many standards, IoT has had trouble getting off the launching pad. Apple’s 2014 announcements look to change that, using the muscle of an installed base of nearly a billion devices.

iBeacons were only the beginning

iBeacons are built on low-energy Bluetooth technology that has been present in iOS devices for two years, providing Apple with a large pre-existing install base when Apple finally launched the software. Although beacon-like technology had been around for a while, with capable iOS and Android devices already taking advantage of it, Apple created a standard that put proximity-based functionality in the hands of any app.

A year later, iBeacons are found in all kinds of settings, such as retail locations, entertainment venues, sports arenas, transit systems and even toys. Now more than ever, devices are able to locate themselves in our world not just by GPS coordinates, but also by recognizing what’s around them. With that foundation laid, Apple is ready to reach for the sky.

Healthy tracking devices

Moving from iBeacons to your beating heart, Apple recently introduced HealthKit, the easiest way for iOS developers to corral all those fitness trackers. The world is awash with amazing medical technology and humans have never been more concerned with their physical well being than they are now. Health-focused personal devices and wearables are a multi-billion dollar business. But for all variety of ways a person can track his or her health, there are as many separate apps available to read it.

HealthKit provides a common language for these devices and apps so the iPhone in your pocket can automatically detect the devices on your body and equipment you interact with, while downloading and standardizing the data. A new generation of health-focused apps will be able to analyze data from a multitude of devices, then present a comprehensive realtime and historical view of your health.

Not coincidentally, Apple is rumored to have one such device with multiple health-related sensors coming soon-dubbed the iWatch (for lack of a better term). Chances are, the iWatch will be dedicated to watching its wearer—instead of the other way around—and its proximity to an iPhone will be the key to processing that data.

There’s no place like a connected home

Then there’s HomeKit, where Apple has created an interface for automation of current and future smart devices in the home. Lights, locks, doors, entertainment options and appliances can be grouped in logical arrangements like rooms, floors and homes. HomeKit allows users to interact with their homes in ways we have never seen at the mass consumer level. As Craig Federighi explained at this year’s WWDC, homeowners will be able to set up “scenes” where a simple Siri command can set the mood for an entire room.

A user’s home office will be able to configure itself for the day’s work when he walks in, or his summer home can wake up automatically when the family pulls up and starts unloading for a much needed vacation. Apple also provides an interface to manage HomeKit devices remotely. However, HomeKit will shine brightest when it reacts automatically to users in proximity to key areas, quickly becoming a silent and invisible director that manages scenes and settings as users move around their homes.

Continuously locating

At WWDC 2014, Apple also announced the next logical step for computing and proximity with a new feature called Continuity, which reaches across all their platforms and devices. With Continuity, Apple devices recognize other Apple devices nearby using the same proximity protocols that drive iBeacon, HealthKit, and HomeKit. Continuity promises completely seamless transitions of documents, services, and activities between a user’s computer, iPhone, iPad, AppleTV, and whatever comes next to the Apple ecosystem.

Because of proximity, users will be able to answer calls to their iPhones on their nearby Macs, and continue their conversation from their iPhone—uninterrupted—as they make their way out the door. A businessman editing a spreadsheet on his iPad while riding public transportation can pick up right where he left off once he sits down at his desk.

A doctor can edit a patient’s chart on her iPhone while walking to the patient’s room and see all those changes immediately on the screen when she enters. A kid riding in the backseat from school can have their game or video automatically appear on the AppleTV in the living room, right where they left off, when they get home.

And for users with Apple products that work only over Wifi—such as MacBooks, some iPads and iPod Touches—Continuity will allow a new feature called Instant Hotspot. When those devices fall out of Wifi range, Continuity lets the user’s iPhone in his pocket automatically become a mobile hotspot and keep those devices connected.

Never feel lost again … even indoors

With all the new features Apple is adding for users in the home and office, one might think Apple’s eye is on small, intimate spaces. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Apple announced another feature at WWDC that expands on the location-awareness that proximity-based beacons provides, Indoor Positioning. Indoor Positioning is designed to work hand in hand with iBeacons to give users the same level of precise mapping indoors as they can get outdoors using GPS.

Apple is initially targeting large venues for Indoor Positioning, and for good reason. Whether it’s a mall, arena, airport or museum, once Apple enables Indoor Positioning for a venue, it will be available for all their users. Apple is looking for maximum impact.
To enable the feature Apple first needs to do a site survey, where they will take various radio-frequency measurements and map them to venue-provided floor plans. Once this data has been collected and calibrated, any apps using location will automatically be able to access the new high-resolution indoor mapping data. Indoor Positioning will even know what floor you’re on.

Instead of your iPhone showing you’re standing somewhere in Concourse C of a massive metropolitan airport, it can guide you right up to a specific ticket check-in machine, which will undoubtedly be housing an iBeacon that your iPhone has already detected. Your iPhone will have already sent your credentials, and the machine will be updating your boarding pass in no time. Once you’re within a couple of feet, your iPhone can even ask the machine to print out a paper copy, if you’re that old school.

The proximity-based future will be that frictionless. All of these possibilities are evolutionary and obvious, especially in hindsight, and will come to all platforms. It will become a part of the fabric of the future. Apple hopes to get there first on the power of their massive scale and integrated product lines, but the Internet of Things includes everything, everywhere. One thing’s for sure, the world is about to be more connected than ever before thanks to Apple and proximity.

Learn more about the future of beacons by reading our Beacons Trend Report.