iBeacons: how iOS 7’s secret weapon could kill NFC

So iBeacons, then. Nothing to see here?

I didn't say that. Estimote has released a video that rather gives it all away. You can see it above. From that, it looks like the best way to describe iBeacons is like that technology in Minority Report, where advertising billboards are personalised and change as you walk past a shop. Only, instead of the billboard changing, it's the screen on your phone.

That always creeped me out, if I'm honest.

Maybe, but iBeacons do look like they could be useful. What they do is make your phone location aware while it's indoors and that means they have tons of uses – just like GPS does when you're outside. iBeacons are better than GPS, though, because they can send information as well as location. So with iBeacons positioned strategically around a shopping centre, for example, your phone would know if you were looking at a pair of jeans and might be interested in a 20% off voucher or be able to guide you to the nearest Starbucks for a coffee when you tell Siri you need a caffeine shot. 

Carry on…

There's even speculation that iBeacons are Apple's answer to NFC for contactless payments with the handset, so you can leave your cards at home. Instead, you might be able to take your phone to an iBeacon-enabled till and beam money from your electronic wallet to the register. The speculation on top of that is that Apple will use its fingerprint sensor to authenticate payments too. 

More after the break...

Really?

Yes, but don't hold your breath. Even where NFC readers are installed in shops, no-one uses them for contactless payment. Don't expect iBeacon payments to catch on any quicker for that – it'd have to be approved and adopted by all the major banks, for example, and fingerprints may not be the best way to secure payments any way. If the banks were seriously testing iBeacon on the scale they've been testing NFC, it's unlikely it would have been such a well kept secret up until now. Plus, they've invested /a lot/ into NFC, they aren't going to dump it now.

Still, I'm starting to warm to this whole Minority Report idea.

Quite. The key thing about iBeacon is that is uses BLE, which as its name suggests is a very low energy radio transceiver that barely uses any power at all. So in theory, it can be left on sniffing for iBeacons broadcasting their location all the time without affecting battery life. Because it only works over a very short range – around five metres or so – if the iBeacon is broadcasting its location as well as a discount for a pair of Levis your phone can be pretty confident about where it is physically.

I can't wait to try it out…

It looks like it could be fun. Estimote's iBeacon kit is basically a colourful blob of plastic which is stuck to a shop counter to let you know its there, which is at least a bit more 'in your face' than the discreet NFC payments symbol. 

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