Definition

iBeacon

Contributor(s): Tim Ehrens

iBeacon is a small-scale network device that uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and acts as a transmitter to detect and track smartphones. The Apple iBeacon protocol can be used to give push notifications and location-based services that takes advantage of the way BLE allows wireless devices to connect without human intervention. iBeacon, which specifies how BLE connection requests should be sent, is compatible with iPhone 4S or later, iPad third generation or later, iPad mini and iPod Touch fifth generation or later. iBeacon is also available on Android devices.

Apple added the iBeacon feature in the iOS 7 update, along with a software development kit (SDK) for app developers.

Use cases

Practical applications for iBeacon include pushing marketing promotions to shoppers as they move through a mall, providing notifications about flight delays to travelers who are waiting to board an airplane and displaying details about a work of art as museum visitors enter an exhibition hall.  

How iBeacon works

The beacon’s job is to continuously scan for smartphones and tablets that have Bluetooth open and are running the beacon's compatible mobile app. When such a device comes within range, the beacon sends a connection request to wake up the app. The format of the request provides the app with the information it needs to push highly targeted information to the device in real time, even if the device is locked. Should the device’s owner not want to receive push notifications, they can close the app, uninstall the app or turn Bluetooth off.

Any hardware device that supports Bluetooth 4.0 can, in theory, become a beacon in an iBeacon network. The iBeacon transmitter is normally placed in one fixed location and sends out data packets to the receivers – smartphones within the transmitter’s radius. Typically used for advertising purposes, the iBeacon transmitter will broadcast information such as:

  • The universal unique identifier (UUID)- Which tells the corresponding smartphone user the name of the user or business using iBeacon.
  • The Major- Which contains the beacon’s location.
  • The Minor- Which includes a more exact location of the beacon.
  • Tx Power- Which specifies the strength of the signal.

Advantages and disadvantages

iBeacon has many benefits that make it seem like it would be a very successful technology and some considerable disadvantages which play into a decline in popularity. Advantages of iBeacon include:

  • Improved customer experience as it can help customers navigate around physical stores easier.
  • Increased sales due to more exposure in notifying potential customers of products on sale.
  • Can increase brand loyalty through having your customers download an app that uses iBeacon.
  • Is inexpensive to implement and scale.
  • Can help an organization in gathering customer metrics.

Disadvantages include:

  • There are privacy concerns as some organizations may not be upfront in the metrics they collect, and iBeacon was changed from being an opt-in to an opt-out technology.  
  • iBeacon can obtain information on a user’s location.
  • Third parties can be allowed to send messages to a user’s device, increasing the chance of a user deleting an iBeacon supported app if they get spam notifications.
  • Bluetooth has a limited range.
  • Bluetooth signals can be further blocked by multiple walls or other obstructions.
  • Not many end-users have heard of beacons in general.

Popularity

Upon development and initial use, iBeacon was thought to grow exponentially in retailing; however, over the years, the use of iBeacon has declined significantly. This is mostly due to the disadvantages listed above.  Namely, not many consumers knew about the technology, and those who did were concerned with privacy.

This was last updated in June 2019

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