Is there much more innovating that can be done, or are we at a mature product stage? Will the tablet and laptop merge, bringing us full circle?Read More
An article in 9-5 Mac outlines Apple's iBeacon technology very comprehensively. In many ways, iBeacon is Apple's answer to its open standard equivalent NFC - the obvious difference being that Apple owns this core technology. Apple is taking advantage of Bluetooth Low Energy (LE). It would allow customers to not only make contacts payments (as NFC can only be activated in extremely close proximity) but connect to the "internet of things" and get a much more personalized shopping experience.
The one-sentence summary is that you can think of iBeacon as like GPS for indoor locations, your phone able to pick up the iBeacon transmissions and work out where it is with a high degree of accuracy. You could, for example, drive into an iBeacon-equipped underground parking garage, park your car there and then have an iPhone app direct you back to your exact parking space when you’re done shopping...
Things get a step more interesting with personalised offers. If you’re a member of that store’s loyalty program, it could know what you usually buy there and offer a discount tailored specifically to your tastes. Or a department store might know you’re a gadget addict and alert you to the arrival of the latest new toy, the app offering to direct you through the store to the exact location of the gizmo. When you get there, it may offer to show you a video on your phone of the device in use.
The idea is that Bluetooth LE ties into Apple's existing technology/ecosystem better. In-store payments could be authorized via the new fingerprint reader or PIN code, wirelessly. Customers wouldn't even have to purchase their items at the register. The only barrier for Apple is adoption. 9-5 Mac explains that NFC is an established technology shipping in many devices. Is there room of an NFC competitor? Well Apple certainly has the cash to put behind the technology. If enough people own iOS devices, banks and retailers will have to adopt the technology due to demand.
Apple has one major advantage, however. The iPhone 4s to present, more recent iPod touches, and newer iPads all have Bluetooth LE built in. Apple planned this long in advance. NFC has been "expected" to be mainstream since 2010, but only now are devices shipping with this technology built in. In contrast, Apple can literally "flip a switch" and have 150 million iOS users using iBeacon.
As both 9-5 Mac and Tech Bytes have mentioned in the past, NFC vs iBeacon (or BT LE) is not unlike VHS vs Betamax.
Yesterday, it was reported that Google acquired "Bump" - a social sharing app that allows users to share data by "bumping" phones.
So far, there are few details about the acquisition. The company will continue to operate "as normal" for the time being. Read Write speculated the purchase might be in response to Apple's Airdrop sharing technology.
Close proximity data sharing has yet to become a mainstream thing, but clearly Apple and Google both feel it has a future. Android should be credited for pioneering NFC, which (like Bump) requires the user to make physical contact with the recipient's phone (usually by touching the back plates). NFC is interesting because it has no active circuitry, and requires physical contact to be activated. Apple has not adopted this technology, and instead uses its own proprietary iBeacon - software which allows developers to easily implement Bluetooth Low Energy to share data wirelessly.
iBeacon and NFC are not designed for the same purposes. iBeacon works in conjunction with the iPhone 5s M7 motion co-processor, to deliver information on immediate surroundings. iBeacon will also connect with Bluetooth low energy devices. But sensors that detect surroundings, sharing files wirelessly, and bumping phones are all related insofar that they allow the devices to communicate with each other and connect to wearables and "the internet of things." It's possible that Google is trying to cover all bases by having an iBeacon/Airdrop competitor in addition to NFC.
It's also likely that Google will lean towards more open standards (like NFC or open Bluetooth low energy) for its Android platform, while Apple will want to own and control its proprietary technology.
This is not unlike the VHS versus Betamax war, except mobile commerce will likely be the deciding factor in the current case. It was long assumed that NFC would take off once Visa, Mastercard, American Express, PayPal and others got on board and started putting NFC payment systems in stores. So far, it's adoption has been slow. However, Apple seems to be taking another road, betting on fingerprint authentication combined with iBeacon instead. There is another way to view this; Apple is looking to wireless standards for communication/commerce while Google's strategy requires physical contact for sharing.
Though many tech journalists have pronounced NFC a dead technology, there might still be hope for it yet. According to Dean Takahashi (writing in VentureBeat), NFC is far too young of a technology to be buried, and it's likely that it will follow a trajectory similar to GPS. He says that NFC will have to go through a period of doubt and uncertainty before it becomes a mainstream standard.
It took almost a decade after the release of the first GPS-enabled phone in 1999 for the widespread adoption of consumer mobile applications using GPS. Now we can’t live without it. Imagine applications like Google Maps, Foursquare, Waze, Weatherbug, or MapMyFitness without GPS-enabled location? Sometimes it takes a nudge like governments making it easier to access the GPS signals or handset/OS manufacturers opening up GPS location APIs to developers.
He cites the US government's requirement for more accurate location information regarding E911 services as a possible reason for manufacturers' motivation to include GPS in their handsets.
Takahashi does not see Apple's exclusion of NFC as a deal breaker. He argues that Apple's peer-to-peer WiFi or Bluetooth solutions are not the answer because they will not scale and, more importantly, they are subject to interference. NFC offers users much better control over their data transfers. It was also created as an open standard, where Apple's solutions only work if one functions within the Apple ecosystem.
The statistics certainly seem to back Takahashi's assumption. He cites an ABI report which claims 500 million NFC enabled devices will arrive next year. Despite these numbers, many technology industry experts don't see a future for the technology.
Yes, there are a number of NFC-based payment solutions on the market and, no, they have not hit critical mass of adoption yet (more due to flawed business models and lack of an integrated user experience than to issues with NFC itself). But before we bury NFC as a failed payment technology, let’s see what the innovators can do with it. Who knows … we may just discover another GPS.