Indoor maps, increased privacy and instant discoverability: Why iOS 8 Will Again Revolutionise Retail Apps
by Ildiko Hudson, Beacondo
As the iBeacon ecosystem flourishes and the technology gathers momentum beyond early adopters, its limitations have become clearer: accuracy is sometimes poor, users have concerns that stores are spying on them, and even with the smartest beacon deployment imaginable it’s all for nought if users don’t even have your app installed.
With iOS 8, announced three weeks ago at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco, Apple has addressed these problems head-on.
In particular, the development of indoor mapping could well raise the quality bar for retail apps that take the time to get it right. But before you get your hopes up, you should brace yourself: you’ve got some more work coming.
Why isn’t iBeacon enough for indoor positioning?
Apple has never shied away from iBeacon’s drawbacks. Yes, it’s poor at precise distancing, but it was never meant to be that accurate.
Apple’s own systems only offer four proximity levels: you’re right next to it, you’re a few metres away, you’re somewhere in range, or the beacon simply can’t be seen.
Sure, with enough beacons in a store and some clever mathematics you can try to triangulate a user’s position, but even then something as simple as a shelf in the way or the user’s body position makes it extremely hard to be sure.
With iOS 8, Apple is introducing a new indoor mapping system that can track a user’s location more accurately than before. This isn’t an easy feat to pull off, so Apple’s solution is two-fold: innovation on the device plus careful vetting of locations to ensure the deployment is sound.
Although Apple is keeping their traditional silence, it seems almost certain that the new indoor position system is based at least partly on WiFiSlam – a start-up acquired by Apple last year for a cool $20 million, able to position a user to an accuracy of about 3 meters in environments with significant WiFi coverage.
Clearly not all locations have blanket WiFi available, and this is where Apple’s device innovation takes over: as you enter a building your device will hand your last known GPS fix to its M7 processor, which tracks your motion. As you walk, distance from that start point can be gauged somewhat accurately, although it’s still not good enough for really precise positioning.
And that’s where iBeacons come in: the combination of a “last-known good” GPS fix, M7 movement tracking, WiFi triangulation and iBeacon positioning means that Apple’s new indoor positioning looks set to give a level of indoor accuracy as yet unimagined. Each of these technologies is imperfect by themselves, but the combination and synthesis of their data is what makes the end result good.
The somewhat mysterious half of all this is Apple’s vetting of locations.
The availability of indoor positioning is down as “coming soon,” and although three locations have been enabled so far (the California Academy of Sciences, Westfield San Francisco, and Mineta San Jose Airport) there’s no actual sample code for developers to work with so it’s hard to know what hoops venues will have to jump through to get indoor positioning enabled.
What we do know is that Apple has launched a new site, Apple Maps Connect, that allows venues to register themselves to be enabled for indoor positioning and as part of that process Apple wants to know whether the venue has WiFi and iBeacons installed, and whether detailed floor plans are available. We don’t know how onerous the process will be, but we do at least know that it’s unlikely to be a magic bullet.
Location privacy goes to 11
iOS 8 introduces a new way of working with user locations that is sure to prove popular with users, although it does mean we’ll need to work even harder to gain and keep their trust. The main difference is that location data can now be requested either only when the app is in use, or always – i.e., locations can be monitored when the app isn’t running.
Both of these have interesting quirks, but we’ll start with “always” mode because in the world of iBeacons we want beacons to be discovered when the app isn’t running. When apps request “always” permission, iOS 8 makes this clear to users with the message, “Allow ‘SomeApp’ to access your location even when you are not using the app?” This was the default (and only) behaviour in iOS 7, so the message wasn’t so specific.
But Apple hasn’t stopped there: because of the power this “always” mode grants apps users will now be asked again after a few days have passed: an alert appears reminding them that your app is monitoring their location and asks if they want to continue allowing it.
If you choose the new “when in use” option for monitoring location, the user will see a message in their device’s status bar telling them that your app is currently using their location – if you’ve used the GPS navigation in Apple Maps, you’ll be familiar with how this looks and works.
Increasing awareness of location-enabled apps can only be a good thing for users, but it will likely increase the chance that users opt out of location monitoring which in turn will hobble iBeacon-enabled apps.
So, be smart: don’t ask the user for their location until it’s necessary. For example you can wait until they tap “Find my nearest store” rather than requesting it as soon as the app launches.
App discoverability done right
Getting users into your app has never been easy, particularly when compared to the easy availability of websites. Smart Banners have certainly helped (and if you aren’t using them you certainly should be!) but it’s only solves the problem for users who actively go to your site.
With iOS 7, Apple introduced a “Near Me” section on the App Store that was awesome – at least in principle. But it turns out that few users decided to pause their shopping experience to check the App Store on the off chance that there was an interesting app available for their location.
As a result, iOS 8 takes the same concept and moves it to a much more prominent position – right onto the user’s lock screen. Just pause for a moment and think what that means for you: that app you spent so much time and money making only to see a few thousand people download it? Well, Apple is now going to promote it for you, straight to user’s devices.
The process is simple: if the user does not have your app installed and enters a location where apps are used, they’ll see the App Store icon right on their device’s lock screen, opposite where the camera icon is. If they unlock their phone using that icon, they’ll see a list of the popular apps nearby, and hopefully your app will be right there ready for them to install. If they already have your app installed, they’ll see your app’s icon instead of the App Store, and swiping to unlock that will take them straight to your app.
This new lock screen promotion offers an incredible opportunity for stores with apps to get noticed in a way that is just impossible with websites. That said, you do need to put some thought in to make sure you make the most of it. But you’re in luck: as iOS 8 isn’t available just yet, you have some time to prepare, so:
- Check whether your app appears in the “Near me” section of the App Store.
- See where your competition ranks: launch Apple Maps, tap any location on the map, then look for the “Popular Apps Nearby” information.
- Prepare a marketing blitz in your store: if you want nearby users to see your app promoted, you’ll need to make sure your existing customers are installing your app now.
The clock is ticking
Location context is fast becoming one of Apple’s cornerstones for app recommendation and promotion, so it’s no surprise that iBeacon has seen a quick uptake. But right now it’s a moving target: Apple are continuing to innovate and are unlikely to stop, which means we all need to work to keep up.
Yes, this does mean pain in the short term, particularly if you’re still getting to grips with the basics of beacons, but the end result will be a barrage of users upgrading to iOS 8 ready to take advantage of all your work.
If it follows the same pattern as previous releases, we can expect iOS 8 to ship sometime in September. Our advice: get ready now.