Apple iBeacon Specification: Why Power Matters

iBeacon Specifications and Power SupplyApple is a control freak.

Which might come as a surprise to manufacturers of iBeacon devices, who have so far been required only to self-certify their compliance with the Apple iBeacon specification.

But device makers who rely on batteries instead of a plugged in power source are making trade-offs that may put them in conflict with the iBeacon specification.

This conflict, between how battery-powered beacons are developed and deployed and Apple’s requirements for power and advertising intervals, may lead to future problems if Cupertino decides to turn it’s eye to enforcing the use of the iBeacon trademark and ‘certification process’ for beacons.

What is an iBeacon?

By way of background, Apple only recently allowed manufacturers to apply to use the iBeacon name on their devices.

A beacon is any device which broadcasts a signal that can be used by a phone, tablet or other device to detect proximity. Most beacons on the market today are using the Bluetooth Smart proximity profile as the signal of choice. Audio signals and signals embedded in lighting are alternative types of signals.

A Bluetooth Smart (or Bluetooth low energy) beacon works with Apple, Android and other devices.

Apple, however, has gone a step further by granting beacon manufacturers the right to use its trademark name, iBeacon, on their devices. They have published a specification not dissimilar to the MiFi program.

The Apple web site states that beacons are not part of the MiFi program:

I want to develop an accessory that communicates with an Apple device using only Bluetooth Low Energy. Do I need to join the MFi Program?

No. Accessories which connect to an Apple device using only Bluetooth Low Energy/BTLE/Bluetooth 4.0 or standard Bluetooth profiles supported by iOS are not part of the MFi Program.

Thus, iBeacon seems to stand alone. It has certification guidelines that manufacturers need to review after they sign an NDA and specifications for the use of the iBeacon trademark.

According to insiders with knowledge of the specifications, manufacturers are required to adhere to a list of very specific technical criteria. The purpose is to ensure that the quality of the beacon and, thus, the satisfaction of both the company purchasing the beacon and the end consumer who interacts with it meet Apple standards.

It’s these specifications which are the source of a future potential conflict between Apple and those using the iBeacon trademark.

Tradeoffs: Beacon vs User Experience

It would be great if buying and deploying beacons was dead easy. But it isn’t. Both the manufacturer and the company buying beacons plays a role in deciding how it’s deployed.

On the manufacturer’s side, beacons have firmware that can be radically different from one product to another. Some use advanced algorithms to monitor and manage beacon power states – turning off at night in a store, for example, in order to conserve battery life when beacons aren’t used as often.

Developers, meanwhile, (or retailers or museums) can also make decisions when they put a beacon on the wall. Most beacons now come with configuration options allowing you to set the beacon up based on its use. For example, a single type of beacon can be configured for:

  • The front door of a store. It doesn’t need to broadcast FAR but you want the reaction of your customer’s app to be nearly immediate.
  • The parking lot – where the beacon needs to broadcast a larger distance but you don’t mind if it takes some time for the push message to reach your customer.

Between the manufacturer’s settings and how you deploy it in ‘the wild’, you’ll be changing the Tx Power, advertising interval, ID numbers and other factors.

The main tradeoff you’ll be making is battery life versus user experience. The “tighter” your user experience, the more battery you’ll be using because you’ll be broadcasting your signal at a higher rate.

Power Up Your iBeacon

But here’s the challenge: the Apple specification requires a high advertising rate. Insiders with knowledge of the specification tell us that it’s a fixed 100 ms interval.

The problem? Many battery powered beacons on the market today, if configured to broadcast at that interval, would have a dramatically reduced battery life. Beacons which might last a year at, say, a 1000ms advertising rate would last less than a few months in order to meet the Apple specification.

In other words, in a world populated with battery-powered beacons, the Apple specification is not your friend.

But why has Apple done this, and why should they care? In part, their focus is on the end user – the consumer. Because the second side of the tradeoff is the user’s phone, the power used to scan for beacons, the power saved if you can detect beacons faster, and the general responsiveness of a beacon-powered app and the ‘feeling’ of the user’s experience.

Is Power the Answer to iBeacon Specification? The GemTot BeaconWith all these things taken together, the only real solution is to avoid batteries altogether if you still want to adhere to the Apple iBeacon specification – or be prepared to change batteries every 30-60 days.

For example, the Radius RadBeacon or the newly launched GemTot are two USB powered beacons that you can plug into a wall or computer USB port. Because you don’t need to worry about battery life, youcan broadcast to your heart’s content. You’ll be meeting both the Apple specification and creating a highly responsive user experience.

Will Apple Crack Down on iBeacon?

But does Apple care? I guess it depends on whether you believe Apple will want more, well, power.

Insiders tell us that Apple has reserved the right to retroactively audit devices carrying the iBeacon trademark.

Whether the current specifications give manufacturers enough wiggle room is unknown. Adherence to the iBeacon specification is entirely self-reported by device makers.  Perhaps in signing off on being an iBeacon device they’re simply saying that their device could advertise at the required frequency.

But without Apple making its specifications public, that would mean that many retailers or developers are using beacons that carry the iBeacon name but deploying them in ways that don’t adhere to the iBeacon specification.

A retailer might like to know, for example, that “if you broadcast at a lower signal that 100 ms, you are no longer iBeacon compatible”….but there’s no easy way to clarify this because the spec itself and the standards that manufacturers need to adhere to aren’t public.

Whether Apple takes a step in the future to police the specification might only be known by Apple itself – or, perhaps, Apple hasn’t even decided as they sit back and watch a ‘becosystem’ that grows larger (and slightly more confusing) by the day.

Share Your Thoughts

Join our weekly e-mail list for more on iBeacons. Join the conversation on Twitter, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

We’d love to hear your input – anonymous or otherwise! In the comments or by e-mail. Because the iBeacon trademark leaves us, well, confused. So what does it mean to you?

12 Responses to “Apple iBeacon Specification: Why Power Matters”

  1. Doug, please, I usually love your blog but this is ridiculous and the headline borders on bait.

    The problem is BLE chips in today’s beacons were all designed well before the beacon ‘craze’. It’s old tech. Chips that announced this year and delivered as soon as June are already up to 500%more power efficient (5ma vs 25ma at full TX power) , there’s also better and larger batteries than the puny stuff most beacon makers put it.

    The high advertising rate is good for everyone and it’s something the industry will meet with ease.

    Also note that Apple Stores use battery powered beacons (Gimbal Series 20 hardware, powered by 4 AA batteries)

    Reply
  2. Jose – exactly right! And I agree. Which speaks to my larger point – that the current generation will either need upgrades, we’ll see less use of coin cell batteries until the new chip sets lock in, etc.

    Loving the new Texas Instruments work btw. What do you think?

    Reply
  3. OK, you know, I had a few comments on the headline. I was actually oblivious to it, was trying to play off the plug metaphor.

    Thanks Jose for pointing it out.

    Reply
  4. One of our clients developed an iBeacon using photo-electric cells, powering the device with (artificial) light. By varying the advertisement rate, changing light-conditions can be dealt with.

    As long as the beacons work with Apple’s eco-system (and with Androids, of course), who cares if the device can carry the ‘iBeacon’ brand or not?

    Reply
  5. Martijin – great point….I see that Texas Instruments offers solar power as well.

    And I agree but it’s an interesting point – if the iBeacon brand requires a specification that isn’t always practical, what’s the value of having the brand?

    Reply
  6. Even before the Apple iBeacon specification came out, some of the battery powered beacons that I bought were dead within a month. I’ve recently purchased GemTots and they’ve worked seamlessly for me!

    Reply
  7. Jose M. is exactly right! New chips with coming out today can be sub 5mA peak power. There is a great roadmap of solutions coming out soon or that have been released recently. Mainly Cortex M0 based SoCs targeting extremely low sleep states and 10mA and below peak operations. Couple that with energy harvesting techniques such as indoor lighting and you’ve got your beacon back on the long battery life wagon. It’s possible to not even use a battery and completely power of off energy harvesting. Apple created a challenge and most of the big silicon players in the BLE SoC market are stepping up.

    Reply
  8. I agree with the comments above, as many SoC providers such as Nordic, CSR and TI are coming out with their 2nd and even 3rd generation devices that have better power budgets.

    The higher advertisement rate is important to comply with if one wants to take full advantage of the
    new background functionality introduced in iOS 7.1 and to get better ranging results. Otherwise the region events notifications may be delayed or not happen consistently at slower advertising rates.

    At Netclearance we have developed a series of devices which overcome the battery limitation.
    Including our light-harvesting unit and PoE (802.3af) compatible units.

    http://t.co/j1UQf2bfF8

    Coupled that with our m2Beacon (BLE to Wi-Fi) gateway and you have solution with full remote-monitoring capabilities which makes beacon deployments more scalable and manageable by removing the hurdle of batteries or USB connections which may not be readily available.

    Reply
  9. The market is moving not only to lower current, but also to lower supply voltages. At Sunrise Micro Devices, we believe that a beaconing Bluetooth Smart device can run natively from a 1 V supply, and draw 6 mA or less while achieving 0 dBm RF output power. Such performance can be achieved while maintaining a standby current below 1 uA.

    Such a beacon, transmitting a maximum-length advertising packet (39 octets of PDU, plus 8 octets overhead) three times every 100 ms, has an average current drain of 86 uA, even when warmup and warmdown times (and battery self-discharge) are considered.

    If this beacon were powered directly from a 1200 mAh alkaline AAA battery, its battery life would be more than 1.5 years.

    Since it operates at a lower supply voltage, this beacon would also be more compatible with solar cells and other energy-harvesting systems: Less voltage multiplication would be required, hence less current would be required from the energy-harvesting source. A beacon this efficient could, for example, be powered by solar cells illuminated by the lights of a retail store, and turn itself off when the lights go off after closing.

    Reply
  10. We are focusing on the application and UX side of the game and have been doing some serious testing with Power, Advertisement Rate and location specific applications. Being in the mid market and small biz space, we have to optimize the UX to keep cost low – both from beacon ownership and maintenance cost aspect and application in iPhone. Being a dev partner and national reseller of Gimbal T20s, we have experimented with indoor and outdoor settings and have created some great campaign and promotion management interfaces. This is a burgeoning space and we hope to see high power, hi-frequency hardware to deliver our rapid touch phone experiences.

    Reply

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