With all of the focus on iOS 7’s UI changes, the more substantial developer-facing advances (details of which are still under NDA) haven’t been getting quite as much attention. Some of the most promising improvements are being made to the system’s support for Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), encapsulated in a profile Apple is calling iBeacon. The details still haven’t been published, but GigaOM writes that it's poised to enable tiny, low-power Bluetooth devices to provide micro-location services like indoor mapping, serving everything from coupons to hard-coded GPS coordinates to any interested devices in the area.
Estimote says one of its Beacons will last for two years on one watch battery
One company looking to capitalize is Estimote, whose Bluetooth Smart Beacons can broadcast context and micro-location data to any devices in range that support BLE. Applications aren’t limited to shopping — the Beacons could be used to provide indoor mapping data, for instance — but being able to beam discounts to customers while they’re eyeing your merchandise would be an immediate draw for retailers. In terms of maintenance, Estimote says one of its Beacons will last for two years on one watch battery, putting the devices in smoke detector territory. And while the price per beacon is currently hovering around the $20-$30 range, that should drop quickly as adoption picks up.
If you want to get in and out even faster, you can choose to check in automatically
PayPal is another company hoping to take advantage of the growth of BLE. Earlier this week it announced Beacon (naturally), a new payments service that lets people make purchases with their phones, but without even pulling them out of their pockets. Beacon’s USB dongle plugs into point of sale terminals and informs merchants when someone checks in using the PayPal app. They can then send personalized offers, let people know when their orders are ready, and more over a Bluetooth connection. If you’re buying something, you just need to tell the person at the register that you’re using PayPal, suggesting there's some kind of proximity component to tell you apart from other people in the store. And if you want to get in and out even faster, you can choose to check in automatically every time you shop there.
NFC's absence from Apple hardware has been frequently cited as a weakness
Earlier today, Apple unveiled two new iPhones, neither of which support NFC — a competing technology that lets devices communicate when they’re held within a few inches of one another. Over the past two years, NFC's absence from Apple hardware has been frequently cited as a weakness compared to competing platforms like Android and Windows Phone. But in 2013, the general dearth of infrastructure and services supporting NFC combined with the possibility of indoor mapping and other applications afforded by Bluetooth's longer range (over 150 feet) look like they could vindicate Apple’s decision to stay away.
It’s important to note that Apple’s devices aren’t the only ones to support Bluetooth Low Energy; the majority of phones on the market today implement the specification. And the products and services that take advantage of it are still in early development. Both PayPal and Estimote say that they’re hoping to release their products early next year, although they're soliciting developers interested in an early look. By the same token, mapping and shopping are only the most likely applications for Apple’s iBeacons profile, and there’s a good chance we’ll see even more interesting ideas sprout up once people get their hands on the new tech.