Its been called an NFC killer. Or Apple’s secret retail weapon. But myths have been launched along with the Apple’s iBeacon API, with Apple not exactly pounding the pavements to explain itself.
At its simplest level, Bluetooth LE is a wireless low-energy protocol for data transmission. It was designed to be simple and to be incredibly easy on battery power. The hope was that Bluetooth LE would, well, power a new generation of devices that could talk to each other. With Apple’s support of technology, that hope has come true.
Myth One: Beacons Have Magical Powers
The myths about Bluetooth LE are due in large part to the relatively small role it plays in creating user experiences. The impression you get as the press catches on to iBeacons is that it’s a stealthy super weapon and that Apple is planning to use it to steamroll through malls and corner stores.
But it’s not really the beacons themselves that will drive innovation. It’s what gets built because they exist that counts.
Or to put it in familiar terms: a phone that can run apps is an innovation. But the value comes from the apps themselves not simply the capacity of the phone to have them there in the first place.
Myth Two: Beacons Are A Lot Like WiFi
But maybe the reason iBeacon has been imbued with so much power is that it seems counterintuitive that something SO simple can be so powerful.
At its most pared-down level, Bluetooth LE transmits a very very tiny packet of data. This data lets compatible devices know that it’s there, how far away it is, and that’s about it.
A beacon has the same power that a beacon does out at sea: it just sort of floats there, sending out a little blip every few seconds. Without it, your boat could crash to the shore, but with it you can figure out where you are, where you’re going and how far you are from the nearest port.
Beacons don’t connect you to the Internet. They don’t conduct transactions. They don’t collect money or send out coupons. All they really do is wave at you and your phone or device does the rest.
Myth Three: All Beacons Are Alike
Now, having said that, not all beacons are alike. Bluetooth LE supports a few different profiles. They can require pairing, private or public modes, and a few other things.
Some are plugged into a USB port on your computer, some run on batteries and can be stuck to a wall, and some are embedded into your phone – making your phone itself a beacon that can also detect other beacons.
Again, at its most basic level, the beacons are simply transmitting tiny packets of data and sometimes getting data back that “pairs” them with your phone, thus creating a secure little handshake.
But beacons can also be combined with other bits and pieces of technology. You can combine Bluetooth LE with WiFi, an accelerometer or a temperature detector. You can even combine Bluetooth LE (to transmit tiny packets of “I’m here” data) with standard Bluetooth (to stream a lot more data).
Myth Four: Bluetooth LE is the Same as Bluetooth
And that latter point will, I’m sure, cause even more confusion. Sure, you can combine Bluetooth “standard” and LE into one device – but although they share a name, they’re two completely different things.
When you think Bluetooth you probably think wireless keyboards or those things you stick in your ear to make phone calls. Completely different thing from Bluetooth LE.
Myth Five: This is Apple’s Technology
But the branding of Bluetooth LE is a good reminder that it’s NOT called Apple LE. Which is what surprises me a bit about all the gushing press about how iBeacons are Apple’s retail super weapon.
The real power of Bluetooth LE and iBeacons is that it isn’t Apple’s super weapon. Instead, the real power is that we finally have a cross-platform technology. A growing number of Android devices are also ‘beacons’ or support receiving Bluetooth LE and unlike NFC we have a technology that crosses platforms.
With a proximity-based technology (and that’s a bonus myth for you: because proximity and location are NOT the same thing) that has the support of the major device makers, we finally have a baseline on which to build an ecosystem of user experiences that might be facilitated by iBeacons and Bluetooth LE, but which will be powered more by the imagination of developers than what this elegantly simple technology might suggest.
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