Apple iBeacons: With great power comes great potential to annoy

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.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

Editorial standards