Blog Post

With iBeacon, Apple is going to dump on NFC and embrace the internet of things

At WWDC in June, Apple (s aapl) quietly announced iBeacon, one of the more prominent features of iOS 7. Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering, mentioned nothing about about it in the keynote, and Apple hasn’t provided any details about it; it was only seen on one slide in the WWDC keynote.

iBeacon Apple WWDC 2013 iOS 7

Nor did Apple say anything about it during the iPhone event Tuesday. But I’m sure this is going to be a big deal, and startup companies like Estimote agree, announcing its support for Apple’s technology Tuesday and releasing this demonstration video.

Why is that so? For a couple of reasons: it opens a door to new set of applications such as indoor maps and in-store marketing, it makes the internet of things a realty and it might kill NFC (near-field communications), the wireless technology most linked with mobile payments.

What is iBeacon?

Using Bluetooth Low Energy(BLE), iBeacon opens up a new whole dimension by creating a beacon around regions so your app can be alerted when users enter them. Beacons are a small wireless sensors placed inside any physical space that transmit data to your iPhone using Bluetooth Low Energy (also known as Bluetooth 4.0 and Bluetooth Smart).

For example, imagine you walk into a mall with an iPhone 5s (comes with iOS 7 and iBeacon). You are approaching a Macy’s store, which means your iPhone is entering into Macy’s iBeacon region. Essentially iBeacon can transmit customized coupons or even walking directions to the aisle where a particular item is located. It can prompt a customer with special promotions or a personalized messages and recommendations based on their current location or past history with the company. Smartphones that are in an iBeacon zone will benefit from personalized microlocation-based notification and actions.

iBeacon demonstration example mobile shopping

In the age of context, iBeacon can provide the information you needed when it is needed. Just like NFC, iBeacons even allow you to pay the bill using your smart phone. The best part? iBeacon can run for up to two years on a single coin battery and it comes with accelerometer, flash memory, a powerful ARM processor and Bluetooth connectivity. Also, you can add more sensors to iBeacon to provide better context.

What is BLE?

As the name implies, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is built specifically to consume small amounts of energy and make phone batteries last longer. But there are limitations with BLE when it comes to transferring data. BLE only supports very low data rates and you cannot stream audio using BLE. You can send small files using BLE and it is a good candidate for small data packets sent from wearable computing such as smart watches and fitness trackers. Built-in platform support for BLE was only added in Android 4.3 (some Android OEMs like Samsung and HTC did develop their own SDKs for BLE prior to Google releasing native support), which is why fitness tracker apps won’t work on some old Android phones.

Why it might be a NFC killer?

iBeacon could be a NFC killer because of its range. NFC tags are pretty cheap compared to NFC chips, but NFC tags are required on each product because NFC works only in very close proximity. In theory, NFC range is up to 20cm (7.87 inches), but the actual optimal range is less than 4cm (1.57 inches). Also, mobile devices need to contain a NFC chip that can handle any NFC communications. On the other hand, iBeacons are a little expensive compared to NFC chips, but iBeacons range is up to 50 meters. Not all phones have NFC chips, but almost all have Bluetooth capability.

Why it is so affordable?

Let’s go back to Macy’s. The average area occupied by a Macy’s store is 175,000 square feet, which is 16,258 square meters. iBeacon’s range is 50 meters (typical Bluetooth range), or 2,500 square meters. So a typical Macy’s store would need 7 iBeacons.

Estimote, a company which just launched to sell beacons, is taking pre-orders at the price of $99 for 3 beacons. The range of Estimote’s beacons is 50 meters, but the recommended range is 10 meters. If you go with the recommendation, you need 1 Estimote beacon for every 100 square meters, which would cost you about $5,000. If Macy’s wanted to add NFC tags (each at 10 cents) to all its products to send information to phones, it would cost $1,000 for 10,000 products, $10,000 for 100,000 products and $100,000 for 1 million products. NFC may not be needed on all products, but this will give a rough idea on how much it could cost.

Google’s focus is on NFC; it just added BLE support to Android

Google has been heavily focused on NFC from the beginning and it didn’t add platform support for BLE until the release of version 4.3. Lot of the apps that rely on BLE couldn’t release the apps for Android phones. Some Android OEM vendors recognized the need and rolled out their own implementations. Google finally listened to the demand and made it part of Android 4.3. But Google has continued to push on NFC and rolled out the NFC-based Android Beam in Android 4.0.

Apple’s focus on Bluetooth

iPhone5c20131-3

Apple has avoided NFC, and all the rumors about NFC getting added to iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 are turned out to be false. Instead of NFC, Apple worked on alternatives using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. During the introduction of iOS 7’s AirDrop at WWDC in June, Apple’s mobile development chief Craig Federighi said, “There’s no need to wander around the room, bumping your phone,” referring how NFC phones need to be very close to transfer the data. As stated on Apple’s website:

AirDrop lets you quickly and easily share photos, videos, contacts — and anything else from any app with a Share button. Just tap Share, then select the person you want to share with. AirDrop does the rest using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. No setup required. And transfers are encrypted, so what you share is highly secure.

New set of applications

With built-in microlocation geofencing features, iBeacon opens a door to new set of applications in indoor mapping. The GPS signals inside malls are very poor as the signals travel by line of sight, meaning they will pass through clouds, glass and plastic but will not go through most solid objects such as buildings and mountains.

This is the biggest problem for indoor navigation. Google has done in-store maps, but it couldn’t implement indoor navigation because of the line of sight issue. This is where iBeacon’s micro-location feature is going to shine.

From your smart phone, you’ll be able to connect to a nearest iBeacon and get its hard coded GPS location to navigate or use the signal to move to closer to iBeacon. iBeacon supports “enter” and “exit” events, so it can send different notifications while entering into the range and exiting out of the range. Imagine having a museum indoor tour with navigation, in-store navigation to the physical products, or navigation to terminals inside airports and subways.

BLE is the answer to internet of things

To make the internet of things a reality, a sensor’s form factor is very crucial. Size, affordability and internet connectivity are the key factors in a sensor. The possibilities are endless if you could control all sensors these remotely; switching on the AC on the way back home, controlling the refrigerator temperature based on the weather, controlling the room lighting from your smart phone, and so on. Estimote is also working on reducing the size of its beacons so that that they will be more affordable.

Apple has found a smart way to wirelessly transmit data over short distances using BLE. So why do you need to bump your phone with another? Why do you need NFC if you could share the data with anyone in the region with the existing bluetooth technology?

BLE can solve these microlocation data challenges in ways that NFC can’t duplicate.

Hari Gottipati is a software professional, distinguished architect, thought leader, consultant, speaker and freelance writer who specializes in Open Systems, Java, internet scale computing/apps, big data, NoSQL, mobile and Web 2.0. He is currently working as a distinguished principal architect at Apollo Group and in the past he worked for many mobile startups, as well as big companies including Yahoo, Travelocity, and Motorola.

Featured image courtesy of Thinkstock Photos.

182 Responses to “With iBeacon, Apple is going to dump on NFC and embrace the internet of things”

  1. This story is interesting and BLE is promising technology – but calling it an NFC killer is like calling GSM a WiFi killer. The RF characteristics for these technologies serve different markets/purposes. I think BLE is good for everything listed in this article but payments. The benefit of short range NFC is the ability to indicate intention – that is activating NFC payment platform or placing smartphone near payment device when wanting to pay. Not sure it is a good thing that payment terminal could poll all devices within 100 square meters – may also imply a privacy issue.

  2. szymon2013

    Well, that’s not entirely true. BLE can be set up for a 2m radius or less to achieve intimate proximity. Thus, I don’t believe proximity is the key factor in security. There are very good examples of how secure BLE iBeacon can be, if you want to review it then go to http://www.kontakt.io website.

  3. Nathan Buth

    Why not both? I never understand where people get the concept that in the tech world it has to be one or the other.

    NFC has its uses in low power data transmission. The tags do not require a battery to work and allow you a much more precise spot of transaction(such as with a poster or a terminal for public transportation). Although the transaction itself may not be more secure all the time, the way you interact with it can be.

    Using BLE and iBeacon, essentially a bluetooth “tag”, you are given access to information in a larger area which is great. Since it does use BLE it should be relatively efficient and considering how many devices in and outside of the Apple ecosystem have access to technologies like BLE and Wifi Direct it should have a wide range of uses.

    Both will have their times and places. Quite honestly I would prefer to use NFC for payments since it does require me to give further acknowledgement of the payment. The bluetooth “tags” would be excellent for having access to store info and the like though.

    To each their own I guess but there really is no reason for these technologies to be mutually exclusive.

  4. virtualCable TV

    All I have to say is this: the first time I am in a department store and my phone is blasted with 25 announcements for sales of panties and bras from all of the competing brands and other such sh!t that cannot be avoided in spatial awareness networks that should put the value of NFC and proximity discrimination into perspective.

    Because they only way to avoid the irrelevant BLE spatial awareness conflicts is to enable each and every department store and every snoopy piece of sh!t on the planet to know everything about me so they can “target” me so I won’t get blasted about bras and panties I will get blasted about socks and flannel shirts and other sh!t I have no interest in.

    BLE is already being marketed as yet another way to give away even more privacy and choice for the benefit of thirty-five cents off or some such thing.

    My phone already has a collection of dozens of unwanted calls I have to pay to review and dismiss. Apple and BLE can go f*ck themselves in their low energy @sses because NFC has benefits which allow me to remain in control of the entire transaction.

  5. Kyle Lyles

    No way would I turn this functionality on. I don’t want marketers to know where I am and what I am doing.

    This is a solution looking for a problem. All “gee what if?” scenarios.

    I recognize that there are many people bending over and grabbing their ankles by checking into locations, but as a % of total mobile users, it’s a pimple on a gnat’s ass. And the more the marketers abuse location based “services”, the quicker people will shut them off. All it will take is one free app to check if they are running and kill them, and the marketers will be back to cold calling phone numbers in search of rip off revenue.

    • Hari Gottipati

      Because of the iBeacons 50m range, marketers will know your accurate location. They know your location details based on the app you are using to connect to beacons. If it is a custom app by store vendor, vendor will know your location details. If it is Apple iBeacon and Apple in-built app, only Apple knows about your location, not necessarily the store vendor. Your location details and payment details are with Apple and Apple can control what to share with vendors. If you purchase a game from Apple app store, your payment details are not shared with the game vendor. Will it be same for location details? Vendor may demand Apple to share location details for marketing purposes – will Apple share it? Don’t know yet…. PayPal released PayPal Beacon and it seems it won’t track/share your location details. Anyway, this is for some one who is willing to share his/her location details to receive nearby/in-store deals.

  6. What about the security issues? I would never make a payment with Bluetooth! Someone could be on the other side of the room skimming card info from your phone. NFC is much more suitable for payments and is already widely used in the rest of the world.

    • Hari Gottipati

      You can verify the iBeacon before you let iBeacon access your phone through some kind of trusted identification. Will find out the internals of iBeacons once the Apple’s developer NDA expires. It goes back to the same as what you do when you receive a phishing email…

  7. How does BLE authenticate individual item movement or transactions with a wide area beam? NFC and passive RFID tags placed on items permits individual item transaction authentication. Do BLE sensors pick up active wide read-range UHF RFID tags that could be placed on products like a UHF reader? If yes, how would you still track individual item transactions when you would have conceivably 100-500 products available within the BLE read range?

  8. Julio Laker

    What lots of people don’t understand about an NFC “Chip” is that it is in every single phone with Wifi or GSM capability already….it’s the same chip. iBeacon isn’t about Apple purposely fragmenting the market to suit their needs here for once, it’s just another way of doing things that can already be done. If their patent for sharing iTunes vouchers by NFC gets accepted they’ll simply turn on the capability that’s already in “Every Single iPhone”. All it requires is an update to the OS and boom, all the current iPhones will be NFC capable without any type of hardware update required. I would expect this to happen around April/May next year.

  9. I think that who sends iBeacon signal has all interest to reach more users as possible … not only the iPhone owners, so I’m sure that we will see soon some Android API able to translate this BLE signals the same way iBeacon does …
    about NFC, you forgot all personal use you can do with it … I bought 10 NFC tags for few dollars and I’m automating a lot of personal tasks, like activating car mode on the car, night mode on the bedroom, or all you can imagine using it combined with apps like tasker … I also developed a nice app to interact with NFC tags and store custom data on a local or online database (check Badge NFC on the Play Store) …

  10. It would be so depressing if the economic drivers push shopping malls etc. to move down an iBeacon-only route and NFC subsequently gets abandoned. Smart Tags allow ordinary people to digitally connect, at virtually no cost to their own local environment in ways that suit them, not just the marketeers. Smart tags offer so many possibilities for those with disabilities, especially those with cognitive impairment. Typical Apple, buy into our vision or take a hike!

    • pkdecville

      Beacon tech is stds based. Yes, Apple will lead the way.

      And yes, everyone else will follow and Apple wants this (based on stds, remember) and will not sue.

      Apple will make $$$$. Everyone, including Google and Samsun will make $$$$.

      It’s called successful innovation. Apple does it here under a big tent. Everyone welcome.

  11. lifewithtechnet

    Great write up..

    And for those who think NFC is better they will see.
    Apple has a thing for transforming old tech in new innovation

    Keep in mind iBeacon can be used from far away along with the typical touch the NFC can do. Some people don’t realize that. So you can have location stuff from far away and secure stuff on tap.

    Battery and power is not a concern when you have a 2year battery life. Stop complaining about a moot point

    @tfraley
    http://www.lifewithtech.net

    • Hari Gottipati

      Cost is the major factor for the success of iBeacons. Broadcom is working on a really small, cheap (less than $10), low power wearable gadgets with Internet connectivity using BLE.

  12. iBeacon’s range is 50 meters (typical Bluetooth range), or 2,500 square meters. So a typical Macy’s store would need 7 iBeacons.”

    50 meters range in circle…
    50*50*3.14= 7,850 square meters

  13. Patrick McGinnes

    This article is kinda like saying “Why buy an iPhone when Samsung has so many options?”

    Just because iBeacon can do things that NFC struggles with doesnt’ mean that NFC is useless. It has features that you can’t do with iBeacon.

    Why would i want an iBeacon for $33 dollars to broadcast my wifi to everyone within 50 meters? A simple tap of NFC can do that with a free contract phone and 1 dollar NFC chip.

  14. Patrick McGinnes

    Why can’t we just have both technologies?

    Why would I want to put an iBeacon in my house or tap your phone here and you’re connected to wifi

    It’s like saying “Why would anyone want to use bluetooth if WIDI exists?”

    They aren’t the same thing.

    You might as well argue “Well why do we need Apple if Samsung has so much market share?”

    Why can’t we just have a coexistence. How expensive ARE NFC chips in phones? Is it really that bad on a premier cost device?

  15. ironstrikesiron

    If you have an itunes account, then Apple already has your credit card number to work any transactions via iBeacon.

    If Apple even get only a fraction of a percent of each transaction via ibeacon, this will be potentially huge for them.

    Is Google doing this?

    • Hari Gottipati

      BLE is already there on iPhones. Apple added BLE before Google added. What’s news is iBeacons API in iOS 7 – it is going to open the doors to in-store marketing and indoor navigation.

  16. Tim Smythe

    Sounds cool, but as people who no longer go to the malls, the store navigation feature would have limited value. However, we do go to bookstores, and it is a nuisance having to ask people where books are. We also shop regularly at a grocery store where they keep changing which shelves certain items are on. Many of the few remaining workers also do not know. An iBeacons to find products would be useful.

    In general, though, it’s so much easier shopping on line than at the mall– so much more peaceful, quiet, and friendly!

  17. Calculations are wrong. A range of 10M would imply a 10M radius, meaning coverage would be roughly 300 square meters/beacon.

    “The range of Estimote’s beacons is 50 meters, but the recommended range is 10 meters. If you go with the recommendation, you need 1 Estimote beacon for every 100 square meters, which would cost you about $5,000.”

    • Hari Gottipati

      Apologies for wrong calculations. Thanks all who pointed out. Here are the correct calculations – iBeacon’s range is 50 meters (typical Bluetooth range), or about 7800 square meters. So a typical Macy’s store would need 2 or 3 iBeacons. Estimote, a company which just launched to sell beacons, is taking pre-orders at the price of $99 for 3 beacons. The range of Estimote’s beacons is 50 meters, but the recommended range is 10 meters. If you go with the recommendation, you need 1 Estimote beacon for every 300 square meters(approximately), which would cost you about $1,800.

  18. There seems to be a gross misrepresentation if this feature.

    For instance,
    “Essentially iBeacon can transmit customized coupons or even walking directions to the aisle where a particular item is located.”

    You are making a large jump here. In order for this to work, a custom application would already have to be installed on the device.

    And,
    “Not all phones have NFC chips, but almost all have Bluetooth capability.”
    Please provide data to back this claim. Remember, Bluetooth 4.0.

    “Apple has found a smart way to wirelessly transmit data over short distances using BLE”
    Apple??

    “controlling the refrigerator temperature based on the weather”
    What???

    • Hari Gottipati

      Yes, a custom application is required in order to push customized coupons. Read that as not all Smart Phones have NFC chips, but almost all Smart Phones have BlueTooth capability. BLE is not new, but Apple introduced iBeacons, which is a smart move. If you want to control the refrigerator temperature based on the outside weather, you can do it with Internet of Things. It’s just an example.