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What Is iBeacon - is it Apple Only?

As I am looking at how venues, both big and small, are digitising themselves for this crazy mobile world that we seemed to have ended up in I am constantly bumping up against the word, iBeacon.

And what I've discovered is that it is yet another genius marketing move from Apple having us all believe it is some sort of magic from Cupertino.

What is iBeacon?

This is what Apple will tell you iBeacon is:
... a new technology that extends Location Services in iOS. Your iOS device can alert apps when you approach or leave a location with an iBeacon. In addition to monitoring location, an app can estimate your proximity to an iBeacon (for example, a display or checkout counter in a retail store). Instead of using latitude and longitude to define the location, iBeacon uses a Bluetooth low energy signal, which iOS devices detect. 


You should know that the actual word, iBeacon, is a trademarked word owned by Apple.
So, is it some magic that Apple have conjured up and added to their own product set? The clue is in the line,  "... iBeacon uses [a] Bluetooth ..."

What is Bluetooth (Low Energy)?

What is Bluetooth and is it Apple only?
Bluetooth [Smart] technology is a wireless communications system intended to replace the cables connecting many types of devices, from mobile phones and headsets to hear monitors and medical equipment. Learn more about how Bluetooth Smart increases opportunities for developers to make consumers' lives easier. 


Bluetoothis in almost every damn thing you own from your iPhone, your Samsung Galaxy, your Windows mobile your, well everything ...

In iBeacon terms it's a bit more specific than just Bluetooth, it's Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), marketed as Bluetooth Smart, which dosn't need much of an explanation, shurely:

OK, but is iBeacon some Apple specific BLE implementation that only plays with iOS?
Yes and No:
The technology enables an iOS device or other hardware to send push notifications to iOS devices in close proximity. Android operating system devices can receive iBeacon advertisements but cannot emit iBeacon advertisements (ie. central role only).
(source of the above and the following quotes:

There are two parts to the BLE/iBeacon infrastructure:

  1. Receivers - apps on the Bluetooth thingy in your pocket, on your head or on your wrist (be that iOS, Android, Windows, Blackberry ...)
  2. Transmitters - BLE devices that shout out, "Hey, I'm here and I might even have data"
Note: these parts are also know, in the depths of geekdom, be differing terms:
  1. Receivers = "centrals"
  2. Advertisers/transmitters = "peripherals"
I'm going to stick with receivers/transmitters in the post.


Let's start with the receivers - ie, the iBeacon-aware app you've installed on your BLE compatible device:
It is important to understand almost all of the logic behind an iBeacon deployment is through the supporting application on the devices (e.g. iBeacon aware apps on the cellphones) ... The application on the supporting devices must handle all the logic after seeing nearby iBeacons. 
Seems all good and nothing particularly Apple-specific at all. You have your shiny new HTC One M8 in your hand, you've downloaded the (say) Westpactrust Stadium app and when you walk into their iBeacon-ed up area the Stadium app knows where it is and pops up an alert to say hotdogs are half price at the stall behind you.


That leaves the transmitters, the hardware that the Bluetooth is coming out of:
... different hardware iBeacons can be purchased for as little as US$5 per device to more than US$30 per device. Each of these different iBeacons have wildly varying default settings for their default transmit power and iBeacon advertisement frequency. 
... and ...
Various vendors have made hardware iBeacons that come in a variety of form factors. This includes small coin cell and AA powered devices, USB sticks, and software versions using Bluetooth 4.0 capable USB dongles. 

BLE allows for two types of data transmissions:
  1. Advertising - "Hey, I'm over here" as in I am advertising my presence not TV-type advertising,
  2. Connections - "Hey, I'm a thermostat over here. Aha, we've connected here's the current temperature for you."
iBeacon ONLY works with the first, advertising ... the hint is in the name I s'pose :)
And this is where the Apple-ness comes in as the data structure of an iBeacon advert ("I am here") has been set by Apple. That's not a biggie really as they're merely saying that iBeacon apps will expect the following structure ... meh.

So can I, or someone with the skills to, create an iBeacon advertising device running on Android that an iOS device will play nicely with? If so then iBeacon is NOT an Apple specific piece of technology but merely their most excellent and successful marketing of BLE.


A typical iBeacon set-up would look something like this:
  1. Person downloads iOS venue app
  2. Walk into venue with iBeacon hardware scattered around
  3. Mobile picks up entrance into iBeacon area
  4. App works our that iBeacon x is closest and that's in the hardware section
  5. App goes gets hardware discount and displays to person
  1. Person downloads Android venue app
  2. Walk into venue with iBeacon hardware scattered around
  3. Mobile picks up entrance into iBeacon area
  4. Android app works our that iBeacon x is closest and that's in the hardware section
  5. Android app goes gets hardware discount and displays to person
Or (possibly - let me know if this can't work)
  1. Person downloads IOS venue app
  2. Walk into venue with BLE hardware scattered around
  3. Mobile picks up entrance into BLE area
  4. iOS app works our that BLE gadget x is closest and that's in the hardware section
  5. iSO app goes gets hardware discount and displays to person
So there you have it, it's marketing of a new technology that's caught the imaginations - typical eh :)

And one final salutary note from the Wikipedia page:
iBeacon technology is still in its infancy, early adopters of this technology should be aware of software quirks running on the current handsets. One well reported software quirk exist on the latest Android system whereby the system's bluetooth stack crash when presented with many iBeacons.
The number of apps are small but growing, the number of venues that have such apps are small but growing and the number of developers/agencies that work with iBeacon/BLE are small but growing (Check out 3Months here in Wellington for instance)

Further reading

Technical resources: