Prisoner’s Dilemma: iOS 7.1 Challenges iBeacon Developers


Apple has made iBeacon better with the release of iOS 7.1. But the changes in the consumer opt-in experience will will create new tensions in experience design that will challenge the entire market.

The improvements are game changers: not only will your app now ‘range’ for beacons even if it’s closed, but there are other noticeable improvements to responsiveness and various bugs have been fixed that caused all kinds of headaches for developers.

Proxima also notes a minor change but one that will be of particular interest to the wearables market:

The other is an inclusion of a new error type on a CoreBluetooth connection attempt, one that says the connection failed. That so little is exposed through the API diffs shows that a lot more is going on under the surface when it comes to iBeacon technology on iOS 7.1.

But these improvements also put a new pressure on developers: designing experiences just got harder, even though the iBeacon framework is more predictable and responsive.

Developers need to think even more carefully about how they want their users to perceive the experience of an app responding to beacons (about which we’ve written in the past).

But the real shift comes in how consumers can opt-in and out of push messages, location services and beacon ranging. In iOS 7.0 you could just close off the app and it would stop sending you messages. Now, the app doesn’t even need to be open or in the background to work.

This shift creates a new tension between retailers, between app developers, or between anyone developing location or proximity-based apps.

Call it the Prisoner’s Dilemma for the becosystem.

iOS 7.1 is Better for Developers, Harder for Users

The root cause of this dilemma lies in what we see as the difficulty for users in understanding the role and options for opting out of specific parts of an app’s experience. For a quick test, ask a “non techy” how to turn off local notifications or location tracking.

It isn’t so easy. An iBeacon-enabled app can rely on two different settings on a phone to work:

  • Under settings>notification centre the ability to allow lock screen notices, badges and other alerts can be managed on a per app basis
  • Under settings>privacy>location services (wow, three clicks!) you can manage location services on a universal or per app basis

So you have an app and it ranges for beacons, even if the app is closed. You walk past a store and it sends you an alert. What do you do?

I’d propose that most users won’t want to bother understanding the differences between the above two settings toggles. Instead, they’ll look for another, easier-to-manage culprit: Bluetooth itself, which can be instantly turned off from the Control Center – a single swipe, toggle Bluetooth off, and the app will stop pestering you.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Much like in game theory, the improvements to iBeacon have introduced something comparable to Prisoner’s Dilemma.

“Prisoner’s Dilemma is a canonical example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so…

Because betraying a partner offers a greater reward than cooperating with them, all purely rational self-interested prisoners would betray the other, and so the only possible outcome for two purely rational prisoners is for them to betray each other. The interesting part of this result is that pursuing individual reward logically leads both of the prisoners to betray, when they would get a better reward if they both cooperated. In reality, humans display a systematic bias towards cooperative behavior in this and similar games, much more so than predicted by simple models of “rational” self-interested action” (Wikipedia)

The Prisoner’s Dilemma for iBeacon is that developers, retailers, brands and venues mutually benefit if experiences can be designed so that users aren’t tempted to turn Bluetooth off.

But just like in Prisoner’s Dilemma the rational choice is for retailers to betray each other, for app developers to make a rational choice of higher individual reward over collective good.

We all know that we need to deliver value to users and that if we collectively create great experiences then the entire industry will win.

But when it comes down to the decisions an individual coffee shop or shoe store or mall outlet makes, they’ll opt for more foot traffic, more customers, more sales – even though they risk turning off consumers because of perceived “spam”.

Look at it this way:

  • Prisoner One is a clothing store. Customers only come in once every month, maybe. They put a beacon out front of their store and send messages to every customer who walks past.
  • Prisoner Two is a coffee shop next door. Customers come in every day and the coffee shop sends them a free coupon every 5 times they visit.

Both stores benefit if the customer leaves Bluetooth on. But each store also benefits if they push a few more messages than they need to. And the combination doesn’t just lead to 5% of the users closing off Bluetooth because of a single app, it leads to 10% turning Bluetooth off because they didn’t want clothing messages at the coffee shop, and they didn’t want coffee messages while buying a new pair of jeans.

The Best Experience Wins

There’s no easy way out of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Even though we all benefit more if we work in our collective interests, we don’t work collectively – we work for individual brands or retailers or art galleries.

In the comments on yesterday’s post, Brian did an amazing job summarizing what we need to see next:

The success of iBeacon by retailers, marketers and other organizations that adopt it will be based on how it’s used. When a new enabling technology becomes available, marketers and businesses often deploy it without really thinking through the best potential use and approach to the customer. If a retailer deploys iBeacon to spam a customer as soon as they enter a store, it may hurt more than help.

On the other hand, if a retailer uses iBeacon to offer genuine help, customers will more likely embrace its use.

….My hunch is that we won’t see this happen very soon. It would mean upgrading the IT back end with marketing and merchandising systems. But if storefront retailers want to compete with Amazon, this is exactly the sort of experience they will need to create for their customers. iBeacon can help make this possible – if retailers see the light and move quickly.

Similar scenarios could be used for grocery shopping, museums, sports stadiums, hospitals, airports and more. Fingers crossed that this will happen. My hope is that a few years from now, Apple’s new creation will become mainstream and that we, the customer will be the better for it. What Apple has done with iBeacon is amazing. Let’s hope its end users (retailers) are equal to the task.

Share Your Thoughts

Join our weekly e-mail list for more on iBeacons. Check out our BEEKn Google page, join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

And let us know what you think – do we face a Prisoner’s Dilemma in the ‘becosystem’? What are the chances of a consumer backlash which sees a widespread shutting off of Bluetooth instead of app-specific changes to notifications and location tracking?

11 Responses to “Prisoner’s Dilemma: iOS 7.1 Challenges iBeacon Developers”

  1. The user doesn’t know how to turn manage their privacy options but knows that content was triggered through bluetooth (iBeacon)?

    You are overthinking it to be honest. With all content that gets delivered to users (push notifications, email, geofence entry/exit, mail, etc), it has to be done in moderation and their needs to be sufficient clears ways for users to opt out of these app features. iOS empowers its users to do this at the phone level through privacy options and notification options.

    Apps can take that further to allow users to customize that experience, just like some email subscription or push notification customization allow you to do the same. Retailers can simple educate the users on what might happen when opting in. IE. “Would you like to receive the current store coupons when you arrive at one of our stores? Sure/No Thanks”.

    Also most people that have bluetooth on, need to keep it on because they have a fitbit, sync with car, etc, etc.

    The way I see it, if an app spams its users, people will do the following from most severe to least:

    1. Delete your app
    2. Disable push notifications for app from Settings
    3. Stop bluetooth
    4. Disable Location permission
    5. Go in app and ask to opt out/customize such service (if such app settings are provided of course)

  2. Hi Doug,
    this is an interesting article and gives me the chance to move the focus from a different point of view.
    At inbeacons we believe that the way we consume contents is changed; it’s changing radically.
    iBeacon is a good technology to make this change but the key, in our vision, is not just how iBeacon is used.
    In all the examples I have heard till now we assume that a beacon “pushes” the same content to everyone is advertising its signal.
    Assuming to have a backend smart enough to be able to evaluate what content should push to you and what to me based on the fact you are near the same beacon :)

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head actually. I think everyone is still stuck on a very antiquated model forgetting we now have 2 way communication. We need to rethink the model and realize this is a way to start a conversation with the consumer not spam them with junk.

    Why not start with a question and the response gets the customer closer to what they want and or need.

    Consumers are not uneducated to what they are looking for. I do not think getting a notice about pants being on sale really changes my mind unless I already want pants.

    All I hear about iBeacon is how to finally port the bluetooth broadcasters to the iPhone years later. Bluetooth broadcasters did not go very far with SMS for a reason. When can we learn that new technology needs to be treated as such. Its the next evolution, not a way to repurpose the old campaigns of the past.

    This reminds me of Mobile marketing before the iPhone was a force. Europe based and not very creative. I remember being told Starbuck will not get into mobile advertising at CTIA in 2006.

    The beauty of mobile is it is no longer a communication box (print ,radio, tv) of the past. We can not only engage the customer but like companies have learned on Twitter/Facebook can start a conversation with users. iBeacon is a social tool, not a poor marketing tool to track users behavior inside a store. Stop thinking of tracking where they are going, stop thinking of this passive system.

    This is OPT-IN, involve the consumer as a part of the process. Make them open their device on entering the store for an improved experience. Use print to explain the benefits at the store entry . This is not magic. It’s just the easiest way to get feedback from your user.

  4. Hey Doug,

    I think you’ve absolutely nailed the issue that’s been plaguing us a lot in our discussions, when we start talking to partners their eyes light up about marketing and messaging and ‘onboarding’. They don’t initially realise that increasing the noise quite literally dilutes the signal and detracts massively from not just the experience they put together but the concept of iBeacons and beacon technology itself. Particularly when it comes to some of the traditional mass-media marketing strategies and people who don’t have a more nuanced understanding of the technology, they’ll be pushing a purely volume strategy – which we all know is a bad outcome for consumers and as an extension a bad outcome for developers and brands.

    We’re still dealing with a nascent technology but I hope that this post starts a broader conversation about what experiences add value and what experiences exist for the pure reason of just ‘having iBeacons’. A lot of this feeds into a broader point we’ve raised with partners and clients which is about what their beacon strategy is and what kind of interactions with their customers they’re expecting to have. Once you explain that things like notifications and alerts will grab the attention of consumers but they may motivate consumers to delete the app the conversation tends to change. The potential of beacons is absolutely huge, so here’s hoping this conversation expands, educates and informs people who are thinking of shaping and deploying beacon experiences. This is honestly something that keeps me awake in the wee hours of the morning, so fingers crossed a few unscrupulous individuals don’t ruin the status of this fantastic technology for consumers.

  5. Nice post and comments :)

    In my experience, people like BT and Location Services and leave them on because so many good things come from them. Offending apps either get deleted or have their Settings changed.

    There will be a few bad actors. I believe that if there is enough benefit from retail apps that use BT, then BT will stay On and bad apps will get deleted. Or, bad apps will have their BT permissions revoked.

    What I’d like to see, and I presume most people would like too, is to receive relevant notifications. I don’t mind retargeted ads online. I can see applying that model to beacons as well. If I am browsing a store’s online catalogue, let’s say I am looking for a new unitard, and then walk by or enter the Unitard Emporium it would be great to receive a retargeted beacon driven notification, “Dave, that leopard print unitard you saw online is in our store. Go to the Men’s Unitard department on 2F.”

    Alternatively, it would be cool if a shop that sells replenishable goods would learn when I need to replenish the things I typically buy from them, “Dave, looks like you might be low on toothpaste. Aisle 5 has the same Super Duper Toothpaste you bought about a month ago.”

    I’m a male mission-driven shopper, so maybe these examples make sense for my demo.

    Just a thought.

  6. It has gone from a double opt in to a single opt in system. Motivating the customer to download the particular store app will be difficult. Abusing that privelege won’t affect other developers as much as it affects the abusing store: the customer will opt out and delete the app. The store will have lost twice.

  7. This is an excellent article, and I think you hit the nail on the head from a “current use-cases” perspective. What’s missing though is how iBeacon could possibly change experiences beyond retail and advertising. We could live in a world where iBeacon helps us accomplish tasks such as taking our medicine, accessing important apps at important times, and having meaningful interactions with technology around our house.

    Imagine holding your iPhone up to your washing machine that has an error, and getting a notification on your phone detailing what the problem is. iBeacon could help people remember to take their medicine when they walk near their medicine cabinet. iBeacon could give you quick access to your TV remote app, or a TV guide when you’re sitting on the couch.

    If the developer community does this right, consumers will rely on iBeacon (and having Bluetooth turned on) to help them with everyday tasks. If the developer community FAILS, iBeacon will be a technology for pushing advertising and sales deals.

  8. Great article. We’ve been talking a lot about the risk that Beacon based pushes will get abused, what I’m calling “GeoSpam”.

    One thing that has a great potential to make it worse, is that many Beacon enabled apps aren’t going to be primarily about the Beacon functionality. You can easily imagine Amex, PayPal, Yelp, etc… all adding Beacon functionality to their existing apps and then partnering with venues to enable new ad networks, which could greatly increase the GeoSpam abuse.

  9. Insightful stuff, both in the article and the comments. Mojo’s perspective particularly resonated with me, and I have to thank Dave for putting the image of a men’s leopard print unitard into my head.

    I think we’ll soon see large scale iBeacon app aggregators (for want of a better term) entering the market. We’re already seeing this on a small scale – TagPoints here in the UK are rolling out a mall wide iBeacon loyalty scheme (see, or my blog post here:

    These aggregator companies will provide a single app for users that would be usable at a large number of retailers and lower the barrier to entry for smaller retailers by giving them access to cheap beacons and a back end platform that they can use to create their own marketing campaigns, probably for a flat monthly or usage based fee.

    This is the point where I’d see spam becoming more of a problem – if the aggregator did not handle segregation of clients correctly, or individual clients became too trigger happy with their messages. I would be amazed Groupon et al were not working on moving into this space.


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