Apple’s iBeacons, should NFC care?

Last Friday, we were commenting for the Financial Times on Apple’s announcement of Bluetooth Low Energy support in the form of iBeacons. An announcement that might well start a little revolution, not so much because Apple invented it (in fact they did not…) but because iOS support of any protocol that more of less makes sense usually ends up in a drastic uptake of its usage, and this particular protocol happens to really make sense!

Let me put that in context: battery life has always been one of the main challenges for the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Web of Things to truly take-off: wireless communication consumes a significant amount of energy, IoT apps have always been a trade-off between energy consumption and functionality. On one side of the scale you have QR codes and NFC tags: their consumption is very low but so is their reading range and, as a consequence, the set of possible applications they cover. Basically they mainly allow identification.

On the other side of the scale you had WiFi, Zigbee or Bluetooth powered embedded devices: they allow a broad range of applications, from sensing (temperature, pollution, noise, etc.) to indoor localization and computation but they also consume a lot of energy. Hence they are not massively deployed (imagine changing the batteries of billions of devices every 5-10 days).

Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) changes the deal as it enables identification but also wider-range communication (in the 20-40 meters), environmental sensing, indoor localization, content push to phones, etc. all that for a low-power consumption allowing BLE devices to run on a coin-sized battery for several years.

By, now you are (or should be) probably wondering: “But you won’t be able to pay, so the two technologies could potentially co-exist, can’t they?”. Well, consider Beacon (that name sounds familiar!), a new service PayPal has launched that allows consumers to make purchases on their phone in a pretty nifty way:

  • A USB dongle is plugged into POS terminal
  • Consumer walks into Beacon-ready store, check-in happens automatically (unless you opt-out of checking in, in which case there is no information transmitted to PayPal or the merchant)
  • At the till, customer informs Cashier (or Beaconier as the case may now be) they wish to pay via PayPal and it’s done.
  • You have not even had to put your hand in your pocket to pay via Smartphone. All done via BLE, all done without NFC.

iBeacons, BLE Node

[A example of BLE Node: the BLEBee]

So, to sum up, Apple’s BLE support is a big thing because:

  1. It can cover mobile payments as well.
  2. It unlocks many of the use-cases that NFC couldn’t cover (reading from a distance, sensing, pushing content, indoor localization).
  3. It does all that without consuming as much as WiFi, Zigbee or Bluetooth (a BLE device can run for years on a button battery!).
  4. It will be supported by both Android (already in 4.3) and iOS devices.

So will BLE kill NFC? I don’t think so!

There are still many cases where NFC (or QRs!) make more sense. Because NFC is passive, and however good batteries will become, a passive tag will always be cheaper, smaller and easier to maintain than an active tag. If all you need is identification you’ll be quite often better off with QRs or NFC tags.

However, the battle will get trickier for NFC stakeholders: Apple’s iBeacons are based on BLE which means that iOS devices will soon have SDK support for BLE, add this to the fact that Android supports standard BLE since 4.3 and you might have found the common spark that will light the high-tech IoT revolution…

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