What is iBeacon and can it compete with NFC?


A year after the release of iOS7 it seems like iBeacon is generating more and more traction in the mobile world.

Will it be the NFC killer? Will it become a standard for all mobile phones? I think those questions are just me trying to be provocative and start and argument with my own self. iBeacon is different than NFC and will probably perform a different role in our lives. A fascinating new chapter in mobile history begins…

What is iBeacon?

iBeacon is an indoor proximity system using BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy).  
It was developed by Apple and was designed to allow different iOS devices to interact with low-cost, low-powered transmitters.

While iBeacon can provide bi-directional data syncing, the classic usage is for those tiny transmitters to notify mobile devices of their presence, acting as “living objects” sending context and location aware push notifications to our phones.

Of course, there are hundreds of potential use cases for such technology, but the very first thing that pops to mind is location aware advertisements and shopping assistances; imagine you are entering a store, and your shopping list immediately turns into a shopping map, with tens of push notifications telling you about special offers that relates to your list.


Reminds me of that (awful) movie Hardwired where they (the bad guys) planted chips in people’s heads so they can easily transmit virtual (augmented reality style) advertisements straight to their brains, control their mind, and monitor their location. Well, in that movie (which I definitely do not recommend on seeing) the people’s heads ended up exploding (I guess there are bugs in any technology), but in our case iBeacons are already being used successfully in the Apple stores (more details in here) and being deployed in other large retail stores these days.


What Next?

When you combine context and location together (along with the time factor which is always known to our phones) you get endless options for new types of services. The ability to tie digital content (images, text and videos) to our physical world is going to be amazing. It will help us in any aspect of our lives, starting with health, sports, art, shopping, productivity, indoor navigation and more.

Digital gadgets will finally become smart. I mean really smart.
They will notify us if someone is taking them away from us, help us easily find them when they are lost, they will become active when we are around or inactive when we are away.

Of course there will be some negative sides to it as well. Sophisticated kids will be able to place an iBeacon transmitter in their parents car so they know when to find the their parents are back home. The big brother will be watching us even closely than before, our boss will be able to count the times we go to the toilets and who knows what else, but hey, you win some, you lose some, right?

Back to the NFC Question

I don’t believe iBeacon will ever be an NFC killer.
First of all, both technologies have a lot to go before they can become a “killing target”. NFC is not yet widely adopted, while iBeacon is currently an Apple technology.
Secondly, the two technologies are different. NFC is for very short distances and has a powerful encryption and as such can (and should) be used for specific use cases, mostly secured mobile payment. iBeacon, on the other hand works on a much bigger range and doesn’t have the required security capabilities just yet.

Here’s a nice infographic comparing the two (click to enlarge):

iBeakon vs NFC