Apple iBeacons: With great power comes great potential to annoy

Apple iBeacons: With great power comes great potential to annoy

Summary: New change in iOS 7.1 allows iBeacons to spam users even if their device is locked. If companies want this technology to thrive, they will have to learn to use it responsibly.

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TOPICS: Mobility
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With the release of iOS 7.1 Apple made a tweak to a technology called iBeacon that paves the way clear for companies to fire off messages to users iPhones and iPads – even if that device is locked.

See also: Poor battery life after installing iOS 7.1? Try these simple tips 

iBeacon is a two-part technology. The first part consists of iBeacon devices which business can install into stores, malls, stadiums, museums and so on.  These iBeacons can communicate with iOS devices that have the relevant app installed.

For example, Apple has installed iBeacons into over 250 stores, and these beacons will be able to communicate directly with devices that have the Apple store app installed. Using low-energy Bluetooth, the iBeacon will be able to detect devices that have this app installed, as long as the device has Bluetooth enabled, and even detect how far the device is away from the iBeacon.

It will also be able to send messages to the device that will be displayed, even if the device is locked.

This is a big change for iBeacon. Previously users had to be running the relevant app in order for iBeacon to send them messages. Now, just having the app installed is enough. Users can be using another app, or the device can be locked and away in a pocket or handbag.

Users can choose to opt out from iBeacon, but they have to do this either by changing permissions under Location Services for the relevant app (accessed via Settings > Privacy > Location Services), by switching off Bluetooth, or by uninstalling the relevant app. But given that most users aren't aware of this technology in the first place, it's likely that getting messages – which are more than likely going to be thinly disguised ads – is going to be a bit of a surprise.

And this is why companies need to take care when it comes to iBeacon use. If you've managed to convince a user to install your app, you need to be careful not to give those users an excuse to delete your app. While the odd message here or there while the user is in the store, mall or museum is fine, but the tine between "OK" and "utterly annoying" can be very fine one indeed. While Twitter or Facebook faux pas can be seen by a lot of eyeballs, iBeacon blunders will hit people already at the mall or store.

People who might be ready to buy.

I think that iBeacons is interesting technology, but I know that giving a company the ability to directly access sometimes goes their heads – especially companies not used to this sort of power – and can be overused. Don't! Because if you do, users will turn their back on iBeacon, turn off Bluetooth, and everyone loses.

Topic: Mobility

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34 comments
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  • iBeacon = Spam

    An automated system sending messages to your phone. Hum, sound like spam to me. Starts off innocently enough, then becomes a SPAM nightmare. No thanks. Use NFC tags on store windows or product shelf's to get info on products at will, without installing an app for every store, and without automated spam.
    Sean Foley
    • I have to respectfully disagree with your hypothesis, Sean

      From experience, I tend to use my smartphone's camera to scan product information via QR symbols (when available). That process is simple enough. Take the smartphone out. Access the camera subsystem, scan the QR code. Wait to access the internet connection and then read the product information.

      However, if that product info was available automatically when I approach a product, considerable time might be saved.

      I think your hypothesis would be proved true, if and only if, once an iBeacon source of info was sent to my iPhone, than that product's manufacture or the store that sponsored that iBeacon product info would commence sending unasked for product email information to my email account. That would truly be spam in all it's ugliness. But I don't think that would happen.
      kenosha77a
      • QR vs NFC

        I have used a few of the QR and Barcode apps, which are Ok. What you don't get is info on any in-store deals. iBeacon may give you in-store deals, but not product info when you want it, only when they send it. NFC would be best of both worlds. NFC tags cost like 5 cents, and dont require a specific app to run. For example; instead of scanning a bar code and depending on the app to route you to the correct product, just tap a NFC tag and it will send you to the store website on the proper product page and show you any rebates/specials. Then use NFC for payment too (someday). Apple needs stop pushing proprietary junk.
        Sean Foley
        • iBeacons and Impulse Purchases

          I suppose it's continuing to get too difficult to put up a sign for deals.

          Technology-speaking, I learned long ago, that if I leave Bluetooth and WiFi on, I'll get about a day on a charge. If I turn the WiFi and Bluetooth radios off when I don't need them, I'll get double the length on a battery charge.

          Still, this technology is great for impulse buys. Personally, I don't shop that way and frown on anyone who does.

          Once I sent my ex-wife to Best Buy for a $10 phone cord and she came out with a new $149 cordless phone. To fix this problem, we no longer have a joint bank account. I also cancelled her AMEX card.

          I think this is going to become the norm in a world of iBeacon technology.
          donald duck 313
          • "Apple sued for collecting and selling customers’ personal info."

            "Apple sued for collecting and selling customers’ personal info."


            "iPhone is most vulnerable, least secure smartphone in the market, security firm finds."
            "iPhone Security Flaw Can Let Apps Act as Keyloggers" = Everyone knows what you type.
            "Apple iOS Apps Leak More Personal Info Than Android".
            "40% of iOS popular apps invade your privacy without any permission."


            no one can trust Apple if we talk about privacy
            Jiří Pavelec
          • To jsou kecy

            Androidí Marketplace je plnej špiónů
            peterhelpme@...
          • Really?

            Based on your comment, I'm not sure the problem was your ex-wife...
            aep528
    • It's a little trickier than regular spam

      You have to
      1) Have the app for that particular vendor.
      2) have background app refresh "on" for that vendors app.
      3) enable the "in-store" notofications.

      Personally I like to think there are a couple flavors of spam. The first spam is from companies that send you repeated junk, out of the blue, because they aquired your email from some partner of mailing list, the hated spam. Then their is spam from companies that I actually want to hear from and can generally "turn off" by asking them to unsubscribe me (when it works), I tend to like these or at least tolerate these because they do occasionally give me something I want. I think this iBeacon is the second type of spam. If I can turn it off, and there are multiple links in the chain to turn it off, what do I care.
      oncall
      • You forgot step 4

        4) Have Bluetooth turned ON.

        I turn it off by default - it's a great battery-saving practice.
        alan_r_cam
    • I see this much as kenosha does

      If this were an ongoing thing? Sure. But you pretty much have to be approaching the product, or at least walking by it. I would no more regard this as spam (personally) than I would regard as spam a sign mentioning apple juice for 99 cents on top of a stack of cans.
      Mac_PC_FenceSitter
      • Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! Danger!

        You won't receive any unsolicited communications from any entity (store, mall, stadium, museum, etc.) unless you have that entity's iBeacon-enabled app installed.

        No opt-out necessary.

        And "ANY solution that accepts unsolicited communications is... insecure and dangerous..."???

        Like a map of a store, showing you where the soup section is located? Or if you're at a museum, and you're viewing information about an sculpture or painting you're standing in front of?

        That's dangerous?
        BLFarnsworth
      • Oops, hit Submit too soon.

        PS> Are you worried that someone will hack the iBeacon and send you to the dairy section instead? Or give you wrong information about the painting you're looking at?
        BLFarnsworth
        • Comment in the wrong place...

          My replies about dangerous communications were directed to omdguy.
          BLFarnsworth
  • ANY solution that accepts unsolicited communications...

    Is inherently insecure and dangerous regardless of whether I had the app running or not. The fact that you have to opt out of this makes it even more dangerous.
    omdguy
    • Generalize much?

      It's opt in since you have to download the app. If you delete the app, guess what happens?

      Why do I get the feeling you would be fine with this if it were on a Zune?
      comp_indiana
  • Nothing new here

    You can get annoying notifications any number of different ways today ... and people manage. Users learn how to mange them or offending companies lose users, etc. I do agree that if there are enough bad actors they could give iBeacons a bad name.

    Tracking your physical world location could be another source of concern but that's already possible too with today's GPS apps. Beacons just let you possibly get more accurate ie. you're actually in the store or these are the parts of the store you visited.
    paulfaunik@...
  • Outrageous

    You buy an iPhone or iPad //for your own use//, paying for it //out of your own pocket//. It is not, and should not be, a back door for advertising.

    Being able to shut it off is not an acceptable solution. The service //shouldn't even exist in the first place//. There is no way for iBeacons to //get// a bad name -- it is inherently obnoxious to begin with.
    GrizzledGeezer
    • I'm in complete agreement

      Spam is spam is spam. When I first read about iBeacons and their use in Apple stores, I wasn't really concerned. Other than a refurb Macbook, I don't have any Apple products and don't often visit their stores. Now that it seems that this is going to go viral, in a sense, there is more reason than ever to leave Bluetooth off on my Android phone. I turn BT on when I'm driving to and from work, for interfacing with hands-free calling in the car. Other than that, it's just another feature that's turned off to avoid more useless nonsense.

      Isn't it amazing how smartphones are becoming smart-a**-phones so quickly, courtesy of the fact that they, and the computers they are kin to, have become just one more miserable channel for advertising?
      Den2010
      • iBeacon on Android...

        Just an FYI: iBeacon doesn't work on the Android platform, so it shouldn't affect you.

        Also, just because iBeacon can be used for advertising, that doesn't mean it will ONLY be used for advertising. Think: maps, information, navigation (example: while in a stadium, the closest rest room is 50 feet east of this message.)
        BLFarnsworth
    • Where is my tinfoil hat?

      For all the tinfoil hat-wearing folks out there that are panicking about receiving a message:

      //Don't install any apps designed to be used with iBeacon//

      Bam! //No iBeacon messages!//

      See -- that wasn't so hard, was it?
      BLFarnsworth