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Location Services, iBeacons, BLE, NFC

January 12, 2015

Location is something that has made its way into our daily lives. Whether it’s using the GPS in your car or checking in at your favorite restaurant on Facebook, we are using location based tools more than ever. Location capabilities are common in many mobile apps. With these trends and the emergence of several interesting technologies, we are on the threshold of a new era of mobile engagement.

The technologies at play are varied. Mobile devices are equipped with GPS capability and also geo-locate via cell tower triangulation or WiFi association / public IP geolocation databases.

BLE,NFC, iBeacon and WiFi are all technologies used for mobile engagement and location services.

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is also known as Bluetooth Smart and was developed in 2006 as a personal area network technology that has similar range and performance as Bluetooth, with reduced power consumption and cost. Most modern platforms including Android, iOS, Blackberry, OS X, Windows natively support BLE.

Near Field Communication (NFC) is based on RFID technology that goes back to the 1980s. It is a proximity based communications technology that is used in smart devices. Android, Windows Phone and Blackberry natively support NFC. Apple recently introduced support with iOS 8/iPhone 6.

iBeacon is a technology that allows a smart phone or other device to perform an action when in close proximity with a beacon.

WiFi can be used as a location technology by utilizing multilateration to determine the location of a client device. WiFi is also a viable method to deliver data to a mobile device, but lacks the sub-meter accuracy of BLE.

BLE and NFC sound similar, but have some major differences, not only in underlying technology, but more importantly in their application. BLE’s range is measured in meters; NFC’s range is measured in centimeters. This results in very different use cases. NFC is typically used in retail tap to pay applications or other very close proximity uses. BLE can be used either as a way finding service or proximity based push notification service.

The analytics potential for these technologies and services is driving their adoption. Big Data and analytics are on everyone’s minds. Location based services play a critical role in data gathering. The implications for businesses of all types are great. Large public venues, such as arenas and stadiums are good examples of where these services can greatly impact users. Everything from in-seat ordering to finding the restroom with the shortest line can be driven through location services. Indoor navigation can be used to way find through complex facilities like hospitals, airports, museums, etc. Imagine navigating through your favorite museum with a mobile app that knows which exhibit you are standing in front of and can prompt you to learn more or watch a video clip from the curator. I recently had the opportunity to travel to Portland International Airport (PDX), in Portland Oregon. The Airport has a mobile app with location capability. I was able to get turn by turn navigation to and from any point in the airport.

There are major implications for retail businesses. Showrooming , comparison shopping with your smart phone while you are in a retail store, has become common place. The past several years, traditional brick and mortar stores have been feeling this impact financially and are scrambling to reverse or slow the trend. Let’s examine why people shop online. I shop online because, I can typically find a good deal. However, there are many other factors. There is the convenience of having items shipped to your home. There is also the wealth of reviews and data about the product that I can use to help make my decision. What if all that digital content was pulled into the physical world? You can be standing in front of some product on display at a store and have your mobile device prompt you to read reviews, comparison data for other products. What if you had the ability to purchase the product right from your phone and have it delivered to your home? Retailers will need to shift their mind set to compete with the Amazon’s of the world. We already see retail stores overhauling their technology infrastructure. These connected store initiatives will enhance the shopping experience. Hands-free payment, location-based mobile engagement, tablets as registers, these are all manifestations of the connected store. Using mobile analytics to see where the customers are lingering and where the sale’s associates are needed at any given time.

Much of these technologies are rapidly maturing and are expected to be adopted as new use cases emerge.  Now is the right time to start thinking about how these technologies can benefit you and your business.

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