updated 11:40 pm EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Hospital management, smart homes, retail, enterprise use all expected to grow
A new report from ABI Research claims that the technology behind Apple's iBeacons is set to expand on a massive scale over the next five years, thanks to new applications that will make use of the "indoor GPS" abilities and personal notification services of Bluetooth LE-powered beacons. While Apple is the best-known "brand" of Bluetooth-enabled sensors with its iBeacon hardware and technology catching on, the study says Apple is unlikely to get into making the actual hardware that will generate $500 million a year by 2019.
The study predicts that the US market alone will use 60 million of the small devices in a huge variety of ways that go beyond simple retail uses that are often demonstrated as examples of the technology. Currently, Apple's iBeacons are used in an increasing number of shops, stadiums, museums, airports and other places where visitors may need directions, additional information about products or services, or want to be aware of promotional discounts or other special offers.
The technology works by placing low-power iBeacons to trigger proximity-based events, such as automatically pulling up boarding passes and flight information as a customer approaches their gate at the airport. In museums, the technology is used to bring up information on exhibits as visitors move close to them, allowing a more personalized and self-paced tour. In stores, customers can be made aware of sales, call up coupons, or receive more detail on an item as they get close to it.
Retail, however, may play a relatively small role in the expansion of iBeacons and similar technology due to a widening array of applications for such devices, says ABI Senior Analyst Patrick Connolly. "It may surprise many to see that retail is the smallest market covered in the report," he said, but explained that iBeacons can also be used for equipment tracking by putting a tag on devices, such as medical equipment a hospital might want to be able to locate on demand.
Consumers, he said, can be tracked using the Bluetooth LE on their smartphones, but individual items not tied to a specific person would call for much more numerous use of iBeacons and tags. The technology could greatly reduce shoplifting or other such losses of inventory, for example. "Smart homes" would be able to notify owners if a pet has left the grounds, and enterprise managers would know if equipment has transferred to another department.
The potential new uses do not discount, however, the growing use of iBeacons to enrich the shopping, retail or institutional experience. Users need a corresponding app and have the power to turn off or on the acceptance of pushed notifications from iBeacons, depending on whether its advantageous to them. Stadiums have used the technology to guide visitors to their seats, point out facts of interests about certain parts of the facility, and alert fans to discounts on food and merchandise, for example.
Thus far, Apple's approach to iBeacons has been to encourage consumer acceptance by emphasizing implementations that offer helpful, relevant or other desirable information, but ABI expects companies like Google to use NFC, iBeacons and other similar technologies to do indoors what it presently does now online or through location-based services like Google Now - track consumer behavior and movements, and use that data to sell and/or serve advertising.