What Is an iBeacon? First We Rule the Word, and Then We Rule the World

iBeacon - First We Rule the Word and The We Rule the World
iBeacon – First We Rule the Word and The We Rule the World

Apple iBeacon technology seems to be powering a battle for proximity-based experiences. But in many cases, the battle isn’t where the media thinks.

Instead, the way that Apple has managed to stake a claim to the term ‘iBeacon’ is sowing some perhaps intentional confusion which has it ‘owning’ a bigger part of the market than it perhaps deserves.

So first, a few common misconceptions:

  • Only Apple makes iBeacons
  • Other beacon makers are competing with Apple
  • iBeacon is a physical thing (it can be, but it might NOT be)

And a few things we know:

  • In theory, once Apple releases its specification, ALL beacons can be iBeacons if they follow Apple’s rules for how to implement the Bluetooth LE specification
  • So…while all iBeacons are Bluetooth LE beacons, not all Bluetooth LE beacons will necessarily be iBeacons
  • The only current iBeacon devices which currently meets Apple’s specification are iPads, iPhones and touch devices. But that’s because they haven’t released the specification yet so that other beacon makers can also put the “iBeacon brand” on their devices
  • Apple has a trademark for iBeacon that covers an incredibly wide range of things. This trademark is a reminder that while we might be referring for now to beacon transmitters like Estimote, the iBeacon brand might end up covering a whole lot more

What’s intriguing about these misconceptions is that it’s in Apple’s interest to lay claim to a whole universe of work that’s being done on Bluetooth LE because of the way the term ‘iBeacon’ can be misconstrued.

Does it matter? Probably not – although Android owners might end up thinking they’re being somehow left out of the beacon party.

Apple Versus the World

GigaOm led the charge this week in its review of the Gimbal, a “beacon” released by Qualcomm. With its headline “Step aside iBeacon, Qualcomm has low-cost Gimbal Proximity Beacons” GigaOm set the Gimbal up as a direct competitor to Apple’s iBeacon (and I couldn’t help jumping into the comments to try to clear things up):

Apple’s iBeacon isn’t the only game in town when it comes to Bluetooth Smart proximity devices for retailers. Qualcomm’s Gimbal Proximity Sensor is now available, supporting iOS today and Android in the future. Get ready for a hyper-personal in-store shopping experience.

The truth is, the Gimbal is more of a threat to companies like Estimote and Kontakt than Apple. (Although with Estimote’s extra $3.2 million in the bank they have a new war chest to work with).

I don’t see any interest by Apple in being the company that actually creates Bluetooth LE beacons like the Gimbal. They’d be more interested in certifying the Gimbal as an iBeacon based on it following the Apple approach to interpreting the Bluetooth LE specification.

As well, a major value proposition for the Gimbal is the back-end cloud services – an area that doesn’t compete at all with Apple, and which Apple would have very little interest in pursuing on its own, preferring instead to let developers build cool stuff around its location and proximity frameworks.

Beacon Terminology 101

So maybe it’s time for a little terminology. While Apple hasn’t released it’s specification yet for iBeacons this terminology can change. But here’s how we currently understand things:

A Beacon is Any Device that Sends a Proximity-Enabling Signal: There are lots of ways to enable proximity detection. You could use audio signatures, for example. Now, Bluetooth LE is offering a way to send a signal that can be ‘received’ by most of the major current generation devices.

But, We’re Starting to Call Bluetooth LE Beacons Beacons: However, these alternatives are rapidly being replaced with a common perception that “beacon” is equal to “Bluetooth LE beacon”. So, while it might not be technically incorrect, we’re starting to see the term ‘beacon’ as being solely associated with Bluetooth LE devices.

Bluetooth LE is the Standard: Bluetooth LE is a low energy specification by the folks at Bluetooth and shouldn’t be confused with ‘standard’ Bluetooth. It’s the standard for how a device sends a ‘signal’ – including options and paramaters for its advertising packet and other data. The value of a standard is that it helps all our devices to talk well to each other.

Not All Bluetooth LE Beacons Are the Same: But there are variations in how you deploy the Bluetooth LE standard. For example, you might decide to set your beacon so that it transmits at a specific frequency. You also have some choice in terms of flags and other markers in the data that you transmit.

iBeacon Devices Will Use the Apple Standard for Deploying Bluetooth LE: Apple hasn’t yet released its specification but we expect it to have criteria for how it would like device makers to ‘deploy’ their beacons. For example, it might have a preferred broadcasting frequency so that it ‘synchs’ well with Apple phones and tablets that are listening for a signal.

Therefore, right now, the only iBeacons are iPhones and iPads: The only company that can currently claim to “meet” the Apple standard is…well, Apple.

But iBeacon Might End Up Being a Whole Lot More: As noted above, iBeacon is a broad generic term. It covers devices but it could include standards in the future that have nothing to do with Bluetooth LE – such as security processes for mobile payments or systems for integrating WiFi or coupling.

There is NO iBeacon Competition – Because There’s No There There

For now, there’s no one competing with iBeacon. In theory, anyone who is making a Bluetooth LE “beacon” will be compatible with iPhones and Android, and will have the capacity to be called an iBeacon (pending Apple’s release of its specification).

Until we know how Apple wants to control what we call an iBeacon and whether it will lock out devices that don’t meet its criteria, the field is wide open for any Bluetooth LE transmitter to be “iBeacon capable”.

Apple has ended up owning a term that covers stuff that it doesn’t currently have a right to really claim. When a Gimbal shows up, there’s no “there” at Apple for it to compete against and it’s more likely to play well with the Apple iBeacon ecosystem.

None of which means that Apple’s world dominance of the language around “beacons” won’t translate into another kind of world dominance tomorrow. But until then, all of the beacons out there are playing pretty well together – and let’s just hope it stays that way.

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4 Responses to “What Is an iBeacon? First We Rule the Word, and Then We Rule the World”

    • Juan Villalba

      Hello Alex, could you share with us, what´s your company unique value proposition now…Thanks.

        • Already did it, and have spent two months trying to specify Sonic Notify technology for our projects. You are friendly guys but not provide agile response for us, it feels, from my point of view, that you don’t wanted to consider our business developments.


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