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Review; The Apple Store iBeacon experience
By Andrew on Jan 10th 2014 05:13 AM
I was lucky enough to be in New York last month when Apple announced the launch of iBeacons at their 5th Avenue store so I decided to make a visit and see if the hype for iBeacons matched the reality.
I arrived at the Apple 5th Avenue Store late in the evening on a Thursday, as it was prior to Xmas and late night shopping you can imagine the crowds! That said, it was impressive to see so many Apple staff available to help with any question you might have.
As I don’t own an iPhone I had to approach the sales staff to show me how the iBeacons worked. I soon realised after approaching 3 staff members that they themselves didn’t know how the iBeacons worked nor where they were located within the store (This is an important lesson for any brand whether they’re using iBeacons or other technology in-store such as NFC. If your staff don’t know how to use nor been educated on the technology it really does make for a poor experience both for the customer and retail staff).
As I'd read up on iBeacons prior to entering the store I found myself selling the virtues of iBeacons and how they worked to the Apple staff, after a few minutes we were ready to go!
Before using iBeacons I had to download the Apple Store Application from iTunes. (iBeacons always require an application to be downloaded by the user otherwise the iBeacons will not be able to communicate with your phone).
After a minute or so we had downloaded the Apple Store application from iTunes. Upon opening the application there were important manual application configurations required on behalf of the user to set in order for the iBeacons to work;
1. Allow the application to access location data; This is so your phone can understand where you are within the store and what distance you are from the iBeacons.
2. Allow the application to send push notifications; When you are within a certain range of the iBeacon, the application can push you information related to specific areas of the store.
After making these manual configurations so the app could communicate with the iBeacons it was now the moment of truth! As I had read about the launch I knew the iBeacons were only designed to cater for one section of the store (accessories) so we soon made our way over to the accessories section and……………..nothing. We soon discovered that there was an issue with the Bluetooth signal which has been documented by others when experimenting with iBeacons.
After closing and opening the application a number of times we tried again and…….nothing. To my disappointment we couldn’t get it to work. At this time I had used up a good 10-15 minutes of the Apple staff members time and they were nothing short of amazing trying to help me fulfil my iBeacon mission.
After saying my thanks to the staff, I left the store and although disappointed I totally appreciate & understand (firsthand at Tapit) that new technologies and being innovative do invite moments where things don’t always work like you expect them too. I applaud Apple and other brands who take those important first steps when the vast majority take the “wait and see” approach. Imagine if all of us took the “wait and see” approach?!
After heading back to my apartment and reading about the Apple iBeacon experience from journalists who had successfully used the service at the Apple store I thought it would be useful to provide my opinion on iBeacons and how they fair v. NFC;
1. iBeacons requires installing applications. NFC does not;
For big brands who have a huge app install base (Pizza Hut, WalMart, etc) I don’t see this as a major issue but for many brands who don’t have a huge app install base, downloading an app Is too much effort for people. Tapit love NFC because the user doesn’t have to download an application in order for NFC to work. Not having to download an application in our eyes equates to simplicity and the removal of barriers.
2. iBeacons are push. NFC Is pull;
This is a huge weakness for iBeacon. Back In the early 2000s when Bluetooth came on the scene many brands experimented with pushing messages to people which most of us thought (rightly so) was SPAM.
iBeacons are a very similar experience to those of the early 2000s, you walk within a given range of the Bluetooth device (iBeacon) and have set-up the app to push, you will begin to receive numerous messages on your phone which could have no relevance to YOU. What about if I’m near aisle 1 that has a special on pet food but I don’t own a pet? You get the picture.
Compare this to NFC where the user has to physically opt-in by tapping their phone on an NFC enabled object (shelf talker, product, etc) and relevant, location aware information is displayed.
Imagine walking around a store and getting constantly bombarded by messages that don’t add value and just serve in annoying you?
The only way Push can work is having ultra-high targeting delivery of push messages based on previous user data collected that can be aggregated from the application itself and other 3rd party sources such as website, mobile site and CRM feeds (doesn’t exist yet).
3. iBeacons transmit signals over broad distances (supposedly 50m). NFC is super short range;
This speaks to my direct experience at the Apple store. iBeacons broadcast signals at much longer range to NFC (Sub 50 meters vs. NFC which is 5-10 centimetres).
When signal distances increase there are greater opportunities for errors to occur. Already a large number of developers have played with iBeacons and found that this is very much the case, compared to NFC with a very small read distance of 5cm of which error rates are virtually 0.
4. Minimal protocols and enterprise level support for iBeacons vs NFC;
Granted iBeacons have only just been born vs. NFC which has been round for almost a decade but this is important in itself. In the decade NFC has been around there has been an enormous amount of work on creating international standards and protocols which are now being adopted by industry on a global scale such as Mobile Network Operators, Banks, Governments, Retailers and Handset Manufacturers.
It will take many years (maybe not a decade) for iBeacons to reach an equivalent stage to where NFC is today and by then NFC will have progressed even further.
5. iBeacons require batteries. NFC does not;
iBeacons require batteries for power compared to an NFC tag which needs no power as it generates power from the phone rather than the tag. This means iBeacons will need their batteries replaced every 1-2 years depending on how frequently they are used. That’s lots of time, money and effort for a retailer who might have hundreds or thousands of stores with multiple iBeacons per store.
6. iBeacons require expensive hardware. NFC does not;
At present, iBeacon hardware is expensive (around $30 per iBeacon) compared to an NFC tag which depending on the model of tag is sub $2.
So there you have it. I’m not discounting iBeacons entirely because I do think they will have instances where they can be of high value especially at events like sporting stadiums & business conferences however before jumping to conclusions I recommend you play with the tech (iBeacons or NFC) and experience it firsthand before making the decision on what’s the right way to go.
What cannot be ignored now is the fact that companies globally want to create experiences that bridge physical to digital using your smartphone, for all of us here at Tapit that's super exciting.