The beacon of light

The beacon of light

iOS 7.0 is a completely redesigned operating system. The surface changes are so blatant that many have overlooked tons of new features hidden under the hood. One of those features is iBeacons. These are tiny, low-power devices that can be used for a whole new category of applications, opening up venues for App Store competitiveness and untold enterprise app opportunities. This time, there may not have been a shot heard round the world, but a revolution did just take place.

Consider this. Isn’t it strange that your smartphone can know your location all the way down to nearest few meters, but it isn’t smart enough to know that you are sitting at your desk reading this? That’s the problem iBeacons and its partner technology, Bluetooth Low Energy, solve. iBeacons are a simple means of adding the indoor context to your smartphone’s vocabulary. It’s a way of telling your smartphone where you are indoors and what’s nearby.

In principle, the new possibilities that this allows are practically limitless. Restaurants can know which table you are sitting at. Retailers can know exactly what clothing display you are looking at. Museums can know that you are looking at one masterpiece as opposed to another. Apps that are installed on your phone can provide you with contextually relevant information inside small indoor spaces. And that’s just the beginning.

Imagine going to a bar and never having to fight for the bartender’s attention. You just select a drink, pay, and someone brings it to you. Imagine going to a store, grabbing your goods, and simply leaving. If iBeacons can communicate with your phone, and they can recognize you from others in a small space, then you ought to be able to use your smartphone to make frictionless mobile payments anywhere you go. Some thought this would be the domain of near field communication, but it looks like Bluetooth Low Energy will snatch up that role.

Right at this moment, many startups are forming around the use iBeacons. They anticipate the beginning of a new age of indoor mapping and apps that are even more contextually aware. The only conceivable barricade to their success is the somewhat closed nature of Apple’s iPhone and the lack of a practical means of notifying customers of the many iBeacon aware apps that will surely become available.

In order for any app to communicate with iBeacons, it must be installed on a mobile device. This creates a chicken and egg problem for developers. Their goal is to use iBeacons to get more users, but that also means users need to have the app in the first place. If too many businesses start building their own iBeacon-aware apps, it can create fragmentation on a massive scale that might make people look the other way.

Besides, who really wants to download a bunch of different apps to handle ordering at different restaurants? Wouldn’t it be better to have a single, universally accepted app to handle that, an app that would be useful at every restaurant you go to? People are already quite resistant to downloading apps for websites they like to visit. How is it any different when it comes to places in the real world that they like to visit?

It is clear that someone has his or her work cut out. The company that establishes these universally accepted platforms stands to make a lot of money from iBeacons. Whether such a standard will come to be adopted truly remains to be seen. It is possible that we will end up with something like Android, with all kinds of players attempting to make their stamp but nobody truly dominating. Some might say this is a good thing for the market, but for average everyday users it most certainly is not.

I think the responsibility also lies with Apple. They need to rein in some of the fragmentation that is most likely to result. Apple Maps would be a good place to start. If Apple can handle all of the indoor mapping of places that use iBeacons, and they can do it in the best possible way, then third-party developers won’t be so tempted to create dozens and dozens of applications that are truly islands unto themselves. That’s the world of Android. It’s a world I choose not to live in because, simply put, it sucks.

And if Apple is anything like the company I know it to be, they won’t allow it.

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