Apple's iBeacon to Follow iPhone-Toting Customers Around Stores
Apple is taking location-based shopping to the micro-level, employing Bluetooth technology that knows where a customer is walking or standing, down to the centimeter. iBeacon, which is opt-in, could be a convenience for shoppers who would rather not retrace their steps or miss out on a special offering. It could also be an annoyance, depending on how frequent or intrusive its messages might be.
Apple has taken a step toward a more interactive shopping experience, activating iOS 7's iBeacon technology at its 254 U.S. retail outlets, according to an AP report.
It was to start providing information about in-store products and services directly to customers' iPhones, based on their location within the store, on Friday.
With iBeacon running, your phone might tell you your computer is ready for collection when you near the pickup area; or you might receive information on your iPhone upgrade eligibility when you're standing next to an iPhone display.
The iBeacon technology allows Apple to target iPhones within a centimeter. It uses iBeacon transmitters located throughout a store to find the exact position of phones through Bluetooth. Naturally, you'll need to have the Bluetooth function turned on for this to work the next time you're at an Apple Store.
"Bluetooth is a close-proximity technology, which allows it to work better inside for location," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told MacNewsWorld.
"The beacons make it potentially more accurate and easier to manage than WiFi triangulation," he added.
You'll also need to install the Apple Store app -- which has other retail-focused features such as reserving items or signaling for assistance -- and allow Apple to track your location within the store.
While there may be privacy concerns with such location tracking, Apple told AP it does not gather information about shoppers in its stores. Apple did not respond to our request to comment for this story.
"Privacy groups are always raising red flags about it, but just like anything else you do on a mobile device, it is up to you, the consumer, to choose what you use and do not use," Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research, told MacNewsWorld.
Macy's in on the Act
That's not to say that other companies using iBeacon won't grab data about iPhone users. Last month, Macy's and Shopkick unveiled a project that offers deals and discounts to shoppers as they roam the department store. The service can be married to Web activity, so Shopkick might show consumers a reminder about an item they've liked online while they are in a store. Shopkick's technology is based on iBeacon.
Major League Baseball plans to use the technology at ballparks through its At The Ballpark app, starting next year. The feature could be used to provide users with coupons for the souvenir store or to play videos at certain points in the stadium.
There are many other potential applications for the iBeacon technology.
"You could use it for navigation in buildings, museums, or anything that needs tight indoor tolerance for accurate communication," Enderle suggested.
"You could put the beacons on medical equipment and tie them back to relevant digital instruction manuals, for instance, or put them on patents to ensure their digital and up-to-date information moved when they did. So anytime you wanted to connect a dynamic piece of information to an object, living or not, this could be useful," he explained.
"Imagine applications being able to tell you about traffic delays, emergency situations, locations of friends, etc," McGregor said." You can tie it to anything and any information."
The current cost of the technology might prove prohibitive for other companies.
"It isn't cheap. Other more limited technologies -- like NFC -- are potentially cheaper," Enderle noted.
"The two biggest challenges I see are the potential for information overload and the [user interface] to the information," Tirias' McGregor pointed out. "You probably don't want to have to look at your phone every time a new piece of information comes in."
"Can you imagine everyone walking around an Apple Store looking at their iPhones?" he asked. "It would be like bumper cars. This will need to be tied to other devices, like smartwatches, glasses, and earplugs, to avoid this issue. In other words, just as the information must be tailored to the consumer, the information must also be tailored to the user appropriate user interface."
Still, the advantages to both companies and consumers are many.
"It is relatively easy to use and can provide very complete and up-to-date information," Enderle said. "It creates a better in-store experience in Apple Stores with iPhone users. It is a great affinity tool and should increase their sales per square foot."
Apple is likely to see "more sales and more customer loyalty if it works out," predicted McGregor. "They want to entice consumers to spend more, and they want to provide customers with the highest level of customer service."