For a company like Apple that manages an ecosystem of integrated hardware, software and services, planning for future products means fitting new technologies into a coherent architecture that's already been developed. That can mean technologies, like NFC, that don't fit in, get bypassed and left behind. Technologies that do, and serve the customer, are embraced. That's why Apple is moving to Bluetooth SMART instead of NFC.
When developing a new mobile technology, there are some key questions to ask.
- Does it fit in with a company's vision and technologies?
- Does it offer functionality that translates into meaningful, easy-to-use services? In other words, how does the feature set map to user needs and market realities?
- Is it geared to a successful mobile and low-power environment?
It appears that Apple has investigated Near Field Communications (NFC) technology and found it wanting. Most notably, Google has promoted NFC with Google Wallet for a mobile payment system. Samsung has invoked it as part of its S Beam technology, epitomized by its infamous anti-Apple commercials showing two Galaxy S4 users touching their phones together to share data. So cool. We want that, right?
As we've discussed before, some current technologies, like NFC, can be implemented to solve a particular problem in isolation, but the richness, usability and potential of the technology are found wanting. As in the example above with Samsung and S Beam, it may make for a cool TV ad, but a broader analysis would probably suggest this is not where mobile technologies need to go.
Apple's focus and product vision—helped in part by an R&D budget reaching almost $4 billion per year these days—allows the company to scope out a technology, see if it fits in with customer expectations and needs, and perhaps dismiss it if fails those tests.
So what do mobile customers really need?
Bluetooth SMART = Bluetooth Low Energy
A series of articles have emerged that go into the details of Apple's invocation of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), also branded as Bluetooth SMART. This is a new technology, included in the Bluetooth 4 specification, but different from standard Bluetooth as we know it. It's a low power, longer range (50 meters), low data rate technology. It's not suited for voice or audio, rather simple data such as geo-coordinates.
Devices that can use both technologies are called "dual mode." Apple's iPhone 4S was the first dual mode iPhone.
The best introductions I have found are by, first, who else but Daniel Eran Dilger: "Inside iOS 7: iBeacons enhance apps' location awareness via Bluetooth LE." and then a shorter but sharper analysis by Steve Cheney, "On the Future of iOS and Android." See item #8 there. As an added bonus, Mr. Cheney also delves into my own theme: the kind of technical development it takes to compete in the modern, mobile era. Finally, see Rene Ritchie's splendid article, "iOS 7 preview: Accessory support for iBeacons, game controllers, and more!"
Left unmentioned, but I surmise it's an implication, is that a modern low-power mobile device should be, in general, listening, not transmitting. Of course, the principle use, transmission to an 4G/LTE tower sucks a lot of battery power, as we know. So in Apple's relentless pursuit of low-power, high-performance mobile devices, it makes sense to transfer the burden of power to local BLE transmitters (beacons), not to the iPhone.
Here are some of the things that Bluetooth SMART can do:
- Micro-location services. For example, you wouldn't have to wander all over a store looking for particular item by sight. Beacons can broadcast to your iPhone just what you're looking for.
- Game controller support.
- Indoor navigation in malls. Interactive museum tours, etc.
- Remote control of home lighting.
- A wireless payment system that's decidedly less intimate. No need to crowd around a payment kiosk and wave your iPhone just so.
- Broadcasting of local store ads and, say, coupons.
- Communication between, say, an iWatch and an iPhone.
Once we start to explore the idea of local beacons and Apple's new API called iBeacon, introduced at WWDC 2013, one starts to get the feeling that we'll have a nifty set of services that have been thought out and are useful to us. Mr. Dilger summarizes:
Pundits and analysts have been nagged Apple for not following Google's implementation of NFC, even as Samsung has advertised its support for Android Beam's 'bump to share' as 'the next big thing.' More recently, however, NFC's lackluster adoption has left it regarded as a significant failure compared to its year and a half of hype."
Perhaps this is why, when asked about NFC, Apple's Senior V.P. of Product Marketing. Phil Schiller, said:
It’s not clear that NFC is the solution to any current problem. Passbook does the kinds of things customers need today."
That was a gentle diversion. Put into context now, we can see where Mr. Schiller was coming from. However, at the time, that remark seemed to suggest that Apple was being contrarian, backwards or indifferent. Perhaps, some thought, Samsung, in its headlong rush into NFC, appeared to be the technical leader. Now, in hindsight, we can see that Apple had a different plan. One that would serve the customer better.
Going forward, it's time to see who bet on the right horse. I'm betting on Apple.
iPhone 5 image via Apple.