Apple has launched iBeacon—Bluetooth-powered stations that can communicate with iPhones and iPads. The feature allows Apple to guide customers and send information to their devices, but the bigger story is that Apple is proactively demonstrating why it never bothered to support near-field communications, or NFC.
iBeacon is a Bluetooth LE (Low Energy Bluetooth) technology that sends push notifications to receptive device in close proximity. According to a demonstration of the technology given to the Associated Press, the Apple Store iBeacon system will push information about the products that are near you.
The feature requires customers have downloaded the Apple Store app and to give their permission to be tracked before they receive the notifications. You also have to have Bluetooth turned on for the iBeacons to see your device.
Get In-Store Notifications
Apple Store App
Most importantly, Apple said it is not collecting information about shoppers through the system. Let's take a moment and consider whether the same would be true for any iBeacon implementation or similar technology from Google, Microsoft, Facebook...or anyone else.
Other information sent include notifications that an ordered device is ready for pickup and upgrade eligibility information in the case of iPhones. Apple launched iBeacons in 254 U.S. Apple Store locations on Friday, which means you can check it out now.
An iBeacon Notification
This feature is cool, to be sure, and once it's working smoothly—PC Magazine had difficulties making it work—it should be a great help to iPhone and iPad-wielding customers navigating Apple's crowded retail stores.
But, there is much more to this story than learning about new iPads and getting a surprise notification that you are eligible for a subsidized iPhone upgrade. What we're seeing is Apple pioneering the way mobile devices can be utilized to make shopping a better experience for consumers. What we're seeing is Apple putting its money where its mouth is when it decided not to support NFC.
An iBeacon Underneath a Shelf in an Apple Store
When NFC was unveiled, it was heralded by Android fans as the best thing since sliced bread and proof that the Android ecosystem was more innovative than Apple. In particular, NFC was seen as the future of mobile payments, and Apple better jump on the bandwagon or the company was obviously doomed.
That was the narrative for a while, but the reality is that NFC has managed to almost gain novelty status. The irony is that had Apple supported NFC it would have become a far bigger success, but Apple didn't because it saw iBeacon to be a better choice.
And now Apple is showing the rest of the world how to implement iBeacons. All eyes will be on this rollout, and if it works, everyone and their corporate brother will jump on iBeacon as the way to interact with mobile devices without having things bump against each other, and NFC will once again be relegated to a means of tracking products in and out of stores.
Adam Christianson of MacCast Contributed to this article.