iBeacon: Apple’s Secret Retail Weapon

Steve Job's Dream: The Entire World Is An Apple Device
Steve Job’s Dream: The Entire World Is An Apple Device

With all eyes on Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s new chief of retail (for both offline and online channels), Bloomberg Business Week thinks that iBeacon technology won’t be far from her mind when she assumes the new role in Cupertino.

According to Business Week, iBeacons are retail’s new secret weapon. But they wonder why it also seems like such a secret at Apple: barely mentioned on its website, and touched on only glancingly at the recent keynotes where iOS 7 was launched.

I mean, wouldn’t YOU want to talk up the use cases?

“The implications of BLE and iBeacon are potentially much greater than NFC. Now a store could tell if you’ve walked in. Once you have, it could, if you wanted it to, alert you to what was on sale in that location. Not only that, but if you said, “Yeah, that sweater looks boss, and I dig that it’s 30 percent off. Where is that fly garment?” that store’s app, with an assist from iBeacon, could guide you right to it. With stored credit-card information on your phone, payment could also be conducted via iBeacon. Your phone wouldn’t even have to leave your pocket for the transaction to take place.”

Business Week Thinks It’s About the Experience
Business Week proposes that it isn’t Apple’s propensity for secrecy that’s at play. The API is, after all, freely available, and there seem to be new beacons hitting the market daily, from Estimotes to Arduino-based hardware kits you can hack around with yourself.

Instead, they think that Apple wants the ecosystem to develop out a bit so that users can enjoy its effects without needing to understand what’s going on under the hood:

“Why isn’t Apple shouting it from the rooftops? Partly because iBeacon only reaches its full potential when retailers and other partners get on board, and that’s a work in progress. Apple doesn’t want its users to have to learn about a new technology, they just want people to enjoy its effects. As Apple’s software chief, Craig Federighi, told me earlier this year, “We tend to think: How can we make it so effective that there is nothing to teach?””

Apple Is The World
I’m not sure I buy the explanation.

Apple’s Passbook, for example, got its fair amount of fanfare and was then mostly a flop. Maybe this is a question of learning from their mistakes and downplaying new use cases instead of hyping them ahead of their applicability.

And frankly, the big benefit of iBeacons is that it’s mostly the developers who will handle execution. Passbook, which was a bit of a walled garden within iOS, was poorly executed – and as much as I love Apple, they’re actually pretty horrible when it comes to larger experiences. Just try “finding” Passbook passes – you’ll end up on a needless loop inside iTunes that confuses you more than it illuminates.

But more broadly, I have another theory: that iBeacon is just the first step in a larger play. One in which iBeacons are the first nodes in a wider network of APIs, services and devices: a network that includes wearable devices, mobile wallets and deeper connections to the physical world. Apple isn’t playing up iBeacons not because it’s not a secret weapon, but because it’s only the first step in a multi-step game where the end result will be that the world itself is one giant Apple device.

Now, imagine the AppleCare plan you’ll need for that.

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