When is an iBeacon NOT an iBeacon?

Well there are a couple of answers to this;

Firstly when it hasn’t been certified by Apple, but more importantly…

When the battery dies.

You can have the best setup in the world, but if that little watch battery dies on you, it’s game over.

We ordered one of the first batches of Estimote beacons back in the day. These beacons have never been deployed as we were concerned with the lack of ability to change the broadcast numbers.

These great looking little beacons have been sitting on our desk doing nothing.

We thought “doing nothing” in the iBeacon world meant not having the broadcast numbers picked up by and app, but in this case it really was doing nothing.

Our batteries are all dead which means so are the beacons. This may have happened over the last few days, but it may have happened months ago. Whenever the batteries shed their mortal coil they’ve left us with some pretty, but unusable pieces of plastic.

Not a problem for us as we were only playing with them and have many different sizes and types of beacon. However, if these had been deployed we’d be in a pretty bad mood right now – and so would our partners.

This isn’t a dig at Estimote. We know that they have since allowed access to change the beacons numbers and we think they recently upgraded their firmware to provide longer battery life. In fact we also have two other beacons using the small battery – both of those are dead too, although it’s easier to replace the battery.

The moral of this story is that you need a robust solution to battery management. There are a lot of clients out there that have been talked in to setting up iBeacon solutions in their stores. Most of these will be battery powered beacons and this means they’ll die.

Don’t wait for your partners to complain – get out there and regularly check the signals AND put in place a system for replacement.

iBeacon accuracy

We’ve been working with a big batch (over 100) iBeacons over the last few weeks.

There has been a lot written about the ability of these devices to accurately pinpoint a person within, say, a store.

Our experience is that while these devices are reasonably accurate and similar, in being able to identify themselves over a certain distance, the accuracy required for triangulation and being able to pinpoint a user by use of proximity to a number of iBeacons is just not reliable enough.

There are a number of reasons for this including;

Building and human intervention: If the user rotates their body will then act as a shield to the iBeacon. This creates an inaccurate result.

Transmission interval: In order to maintain a reasonable length of time between battery changes it seems likely that the interval will be lowered, thus preserving power levels.

As each beacon will, therefore, be transmitting at different times, it is difficult to maintain an accurate positioning.

Our projects are not attempting to pinpoint the user to an exact location. The results we’ve seen just don’t seem to warrant the development.

Of course, this may all change in the future, but the stated battery life of the devices causes problems right now.

iBeacon Security

One of the key areas that consumers “may” be worried about with iBeacons is security.

Let’s refresh – iBeacons send a series of numbers out, that’s all. They are dumb in the fact that they have no functionality other than transmitting numbers.

iBeacons can be hacked, but not really in the way that scares the living daylights out of us all. Someone can intercept the numbers that are being transmitted.

Why? – Well that’s a pretty good question. The only thing that can be done with these is to replicate the beacon. So someone could sit at home with an iPad and create the beacon which would give the downloaded app data that makes the app think it is near the beacon.

This has very little value to the hacker.

The only thing that we can think of is that if an app offers some kind of prize for visiting the beacon (perhaps as part of a treasure hunt?) then it’s possible to trick the app in to believing that you have indeed completed the tasks.

However, if the prize has real value simply use GPS as well as the iBeacons. Make the user actually be in the right area geographically as well as having visited the beacons.

So that’s the threat – albeit more a bit of fun for a few bedroom hackers.

There is also talk of replacing NFC payment systems with iBeacons. Remembering that iBeacons are basically dumb units, all of the technology to encrypt data will have to be triggered by the smart device in conjunction with the cloud. iBeacons are the trigger NOT the method for passing secure data.

The common misconception of iBeacons

There are hundreds of articles out there that explain what iBeacons are. These articles tend to be followed by some very real misconceptions.

So, here’s a quick heads up.

iBeacons is a term coined by Apple. Apple have (in Feb’ 2014) decided on the specific hardware and specifications which will allow BlueTooth Low Energy devices to carry the iBeacons trademark.

This does NOT mean that all beacons (notice the missing ‘i’ there) absolutely have to conform. Apple devices will still recognise other beacons and they will do exactly the same thing – they just won’t be able to carry the iBeacons trademark.

The most concerning misconception amongst, predominantly, consumers is that while they are out wandering the streets or the mall or the sports ground they will be bombarded with ads from every single beacon in range.

THEY WON’T. Beacons will only transmit their small amount of data (a series of numbers that indicate the beacons group and the position within a store etc). The user will absolutely have to have downloaded an app that is specifically interested in the specific group of beacons that belong to the app.

As an example, if store x, store y and store z all have beacons within their store it will require the user to have downloaded an app for ALL 3 of these stores i.e 3 apps. If the user has only download the store x app then only beacons belonging to this group will be able to communicate with the user.

Yes, the store x marketing team may well then beam ads to the user, but if these are of no interest then the user can simply delete the app and never receive messages from that retailer again.

Hope that’s cleared that up.