Bluetooth Low Energy + Apple = iBeacons

Björn Sjölund

Walkbase iBeacon

With the recent rise of iBeacons it feels like they're mentioned in every tweet and blog about positioning technologies and retail. Like many new technologies there is a lot of misinformation with regards to what iBeacons are and what they actually can be used for. The goal with this post is to explain a bit more about the technology behind iBeacons and what we think it will enable from a technology perspective.

Bluetooth low energy

Lets start with the basics. Apple did not invent the iBeacon technology per se, they simply realised the true potential of using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) a.k.a. Bluetooth Smart in retail environments. iBeacons are based on the "new" and quite popular Bluetooth Low Energy standard.  BLE was introduced by Nokia several years ago under a different name and is not a direct derivative of the original Bluetooth protocol. BLE's main selling point is low power consumption and a very clear/limited communication structure (GATT). In theory a BLE device should be able to run for years without the need for a battery change. The true standby time is however very much dependent on how often connections are made to the device, how often the device announces itself and what the transmission strength is. BLE is built around the idea that you expose services and service characteristics. These services can be read by any device that connects to the BLE device. The BLE standard has a long list of recognized serivces but you are free to add your own as well. Each BLE service exposes n amounts of characteristics that can then be read, written or subscribed to by the connected device. Think of the BLE services as a sort of register that stores values with different id's (UUID) and by knowing the id you can read or write values, i.e. the characteristics. A typical example would be a heart rate monitor service that exposes a characteristic called heart rate measurement.


But wait, what does this have to do with iBeacons? 

Let's start with what Apple did with BLE. They realised the value of having a beacon transmitting a continuous signal that can be picked up by mobile devices (phones, tablets). Not only does the signal indicate proximity to a beacon, it can also be used for estimating the distance from it. They also needed a way to distinguish each beacon from each other. BLE devices mainly expose their MAC address when they are not connected, i.e. broadcasting. Even though the MAC addresses are unique for each device, Apple wanted to include more information. They did this by changing the way BLE devices typically advertise their existence. In addition to sending the MAC address they also send a universally unique identifier (UUID), a major value and a minor value. This enables the beacons to transmit the same UUID (indicating that they belong together), but still be uniquely identifiable by the major and minor numbers.


550e8400-e29b-41d4-a716-446655440000 (UUID), 10(Major), 10(Minor)

iBeacons are fully supported from iOS7+ and Apple has done a good job in exposing the necessary APIs for building powerful applications and services.

What about non iOS devices?

Since iBeacons are based on the BLE standard there is nothing preventing them from being used by other operating systems that support BLE. The only downside is that there is no native support for them on the operating system side, like on iOS7+. But there are more libraries popping up all the time that provide this functionality (mostly for Android). At Walkbase we've integrated the iBeacon technology into our Engage service in a way that guarantees cross platform functionality.


Androids relatively open bluetooth stack means that you can "emulate" all the features that iBeacons enable on iOS devices. There has however been problems with some drivers in the first generation of Android BLE devices. This has led to unexpected behaviour at times and made the creation of a standard library that works on all devices difficult. But things have improved lately and 2014 will most likely see many new BLE enabled Android devices.

Windows Phone

Microsoft has made some advancements in bringing the BLE APIs to Windows Phone, but they are still lagging behind. With the latest release (8.1) you are only able to connect to previously paired devices, there are no scanning or discovery services that could be used to emulate iOS behaviour at this time. It's unlikely that we will see any major improvements to this under 2014, given Microsofts relatively slow software release cycles.


iBeacons will finally enable the creation of affordable smart retail spaces, where smartphones can be used to discover location based context (product features, services, payments, advertisements). On the other side of the table it will enable retailers to fully embrace the mobile platform as a substitute for the traditional loyalty card system. Mobile payments can be made more secure and the overall shopping experience can be immensely improved and personalized.

It will of course also enable the gathering of information that can be used to improve the customer service experience, e.g. by knowing your customers interests and purchase history you can avoid sending unwanted solicitations.

The customer is also in control of how shopping data is gathered, by not using the retailers application or by disabling bluetooth they can opt out.

Read more about iBeacons here.

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Walkbase provides a retail analytics solution for improving the impact of marketing on physical stores and personalising in-store shopping experience.