Location services move indoors: Apple’s iBeacon

An incidental headline in Outsell’s information market monitoring email brought my attention to Apple’s new iBeacon technology, announced last year.

We’ve long been used to the idea that the smart devices we carry around with us might/can detect nearby things of interest: for example, alerting us to an offer from a store nearby. Location services, based on GPS, on your current WiFi connection, or on triangulation from your mobile signal, do this. So can active RFID.

But indoor location is difficult. Current technology is an updated version of the old nautical dead reckoning. It notes where you are when you lose your accurate GPS/cellular/WiFi positioning, and uses motion sensors to track.

iBeacon is different. It’s a nearer-proximity application and is based on Bluetooth detection of your smartphone. Apple says: Instead of using latitude and longitude to define the location, iBeacon uses a Bluetooth low energy signal, which iOS devices detect. So you need Bluetooth turned on as well as having an appropriate app loaded. This leaves you a modicum of control, I guess.

What alerted me was Outsell’s note that London-based online community specialist Verve has added Apple’s iBeacon technology to its Community Panel app, allowing it to track individual members as they travel into and around stores fitted with the iBeacon device. The report, from “MrWeb”, is firmly in the market research space. This is very much a retailer’s app; it tracks the device in detail through a store, identifying where the user spends time – and how long they stay there – and possibly triggering instant marketing surveys on that basis.

Verve is a newish (2008) company. They describe themselves as “The community panel for research”. Their business is the creation of community panels, acting as consultants to companies needing consumer-focussed research. There’s no  indication, therefore, of what incentives are offered to users to join panels; but one might assume instant offers would be the least of it. There is some client information in their “About Us” section (but one client is T-Mobile, which hasn’t existed independently since around the time Verve were formed, so one wonders …).

Apple’s developer website suggest a range of applications:

From welcoming people as they arrive at a sporting event to providing information about a nearby museum exhibit, iBeacon opens a new world of possibilities for location awareness, and countless opportunities for interactivity between iOS devices and iBeacon hardware

A link will take you through to a video from the 2014 WorldWide Developers Forum. This is awkward to get at: unless you’re using Safari on a recent MacOS you will need to download the file to play it. But it’s worth it; it takes you on a journey from existing RF triangulation, adding motion sensors when indoors and out of effective range, to the new beacon-based technology. And on the way it suggests more user-oriented applications, such as finding your way roung Heathrow Airport; or through an unfamiliar hospital on a family visit. Watch about the first 15 minutes, before it routes to coding stuff for developers.

Technically, interesting; a new twist on location services. Practically useful; but watch out (as always) for what it may do to your privacy. As they say: enjoy!

Links:
• iOS: understanding iBeacon, Apple
• iBeacon for Developers, Apple Developer website
• Verve Adds iBeacon Tech to Panel App, Mr Web Daily Rresearch News Online, 5 Mar 2015
• Verve: community panel research
Taking Core Location Indoors, Nav Patel, Apple WWDC, June 2014. Page down to find the expanded link

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Apple iPhone: the good and the dodgy

Two reports on Apple this morning, both in the mainstream press.

Earnings have jumped, driven largely by the iPhone. The iPad is doing well, but has fallen back after the big Christmas rush. Apple assert that they have been able to manage the supply chain issues resulting from disruption in Japan (see Japan’s troubles touch the IT economy, 24 Mar), though there will be an effect on revenue; and that demand for the iPad2 is surging.

But reports also assert that the iPxxx poses a challenge to user privacy. The Guardian quotes analysts at O’Reilly Radar, one of InformationSpan’s favourite tech watch sources, who have shown that iOS4 automatically collects location data, stores the results in a file on the device, and replicates it unseen to the “home” computer when synchronised. There’s no opt-in or opt-out. The Guardian say that it has itself ascertained that the iPad also stores these data; and the information is transferred to a new device when the user migrates.

The privacy threat is twofold. First, from the data file: if the device is lost the file is hackable. Second, the data can also be unearthed on the synchronised computer.

O’Reilly says “Don’t panic”. It doesn’t appear that information is transmitted back to Apple. But the Guardian does point out that the iTunes conditions of service include the collection of location data “to improve location-based services”.

People trade privacy for benefit. But it needs to be an informed and active decision. And this is not going to decrease the already burgeoning fears (whether or not justified!) of IT Security professionals at the encroachment of these “unconventional devices” into the hitherto well-regulated corporate space.

Links:
• Apple’s iPhone rockets quarterly earnings by 95% to $6bn, Guardian, 21 Apr 2011
• Got an iPhone or 3G iPad? Apple is recording your moves, O’Reilly Radar, 20 Apr 2011
• iPhone keeps record of everywhere you go, Guardian, 21 Apr 2011
• Japan’s troubles touch the IT economy, ITasITis, 24 Mar 2011