1ibeaconBarely a term has generated such a buzz in recent days as the word "Beacon". But what’s behind this buzzword? Is it just hype or a real game changer?

In wireless networks, a beacon is a type of frame which is sent by the access point or WiFi router to indicate that it is on. And beaconing is the process that allows a network to self-repair network problems and is used in token ring and FDDI networks. The stations on the network notify the other stations on the ring when they are not receiving the transmissions.

In the case of this new “beacon", it should be regarded as a generic term for the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) solutions offered by different manufacturers. The early adopters of this technology have been primarily focused on the mobile payment benefit to customers. However, as manufacturers and retailers explore the opportunity to use the mobile technology as a marketing platform to engage consumers, the goal of enhancing and personalizing the shopping experience appears to become more of a reality. Thanks to advancements in beacon technology, that real-time interaction with customers at stores can be facilitated and used for developing new marketing concepts.

Originally a Nokia research project, BLE was first introduced by the Finnish firm in 2007 and released as part of Bluetooth 4.0 under the brand name of Bluetooth Smart. BLE is designed to be an ultra-low power network that can operate on a coin cell battery for up to three years, and can come in different formats, including small coin cell powered devices, USB sticks and software versions.

Mid of last year, Apple filed a patent application that introduced iBeacons, a unique system whereby a user of an iOS device could be presented not only with options of local restaurants but also wait times and seating availability in real time, as well as remote and in-restaurant ordering systems that allow customers and staff to place and modify orders. Besides that, a payment option allows for pre or post payment.

Without doubt, iBeacons is designed to help the retail industry simplify payments and enable on-site offers.

With iOS7, Apple extended the possibilities of BLE with iBeacons that became the Apple Trademark for an indoor positioning system. Apple calls it "a new class of low-powered, low-cost transmitters that can notify nearby iOS7 devices of their presence”.

In December 2013, Apple activated iBeacons across its 254 US retail stores and provided retailers an opportunity with the launch of iOS 7 to make use of this Bluetooth 4.0 based technology, enabling an iOS device or other hardware to send push notifications to iOS devices in close proximity. If smartphone users are near an iBeacon, the technology allows reaching them with personalized push messages - easily and conveniently.

Currently, the range of the iBeacons is between 10m and 50m and besides that there is the precondition that a responsive app is installed on the smartphone. Only then can local information be sent onto the users’ display with the help of the iBeacon.

Because BLE operates in the 2.4GHz spectrum, it is license free around the world. As for security, it comes fully loaded with AES128 encryption, featuring a robust connection that has cyclical redundancy checks and adaptive frequency hopping – therefore, it is very power efficient, secure and cheaper to implement because of its range.

Since any iOS device that supports BLE can become an iBeacon and can detect other iBeacons when they are nearby, privacy concerns will play a huge role regarding its acceptance, as location tracking always raises issues. After all, shoppers may not want their every move to be watched and recorded inside a store. Apple, however, said that it does not collect information about shoppers inside its stores. The company said notices are triggered when the app senses a location beacon nearby, without Apple’s beacon needing to even know you’re there. But let me tell you more on that in next week’s issue of Asian eMarketing.

By Daniela La Marca