iBeacon Primer Part I: Mythbusting

Since Apple stealthily announced the inclusion of iBeacons as a part of iOS7 at WWDC in June 2013 there has been a lot of journalistic hyperbole about iBeacons revolutionising physical retail by sending offers and customised information direct to your phone.

The truth is that iBeacons don’t actually transmit content – they transmit a location, enabling apps to retrieve and surface location-relevant content.

iBeacons are (thankfully) not a magical new way of automatically knowing who you are and sending spam “content” to your phone just by happening by them.

So what do iBeacons actually do?

iBeacons are low-power wireless transmitters that send identifying information in a specific format to nearby mobile devices using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).

The real power of iBeacons is that they provide real-world proximity awareness to mobile devices that the mobile app can then convey (via normal 3G, 4G, or wireless connections) to the retailer’s APIs or content services.

In order to benefit from the presence of iBeacons at a specific location, users must have an accompanying app installed, and they must have Bluetooth enabled.  The app can then recognise specific iBeacons and present special promotions, personalised messages or location-specific services that are relevant, timely and valuable to the user.

In essence, all of the clever stuff – figuring out location, delivering specific content, or any other types of interaction – is all done by the smartphone app, not the (relatively dumb) beacon.

Who is already using iBeacons?

The iBeacon feature is already included in the official Apple Store application for iOS, and has been used to deliver an enhanced shopping experience at the 254 retail stores it owns across the U.S. since 6 December 2013.

Macy’s and American Eagle have been piloting enhanced shopping experience, delivering added value via both the Shopkick app and Macy’s own apps.

Since January 2014 selected Safeway and Giant Eagle stores have been outfitted with iBeacons that use inMarket’s “Mobile to Mortar” platform.

Lastly, Major League Baseball have confirmed that 20 teams will be installing iBeacons in their stadiums this March to interact with their “At the Ballpark” app.

Taking iBeacons beyond retail

Despite poor journalism spreading misconceptions about how they actually work, iBeacons are an interesting and powerful technology with a wealth of potential applications beyond glorified retail spam.

The technology is still maturing, but iBeacons offer huge potential for forward-thinking brands to engage with their audience in more subtle, sophisticated and nuanced ways as part of their everyday life and their interactions with the world around them.

In Part II of this series my colleague Sam Keene helps clarify the differences between iBeacon and geofencing, including where they can work hand in hand to deliver even smarter experiences to retail consumers.