It’s often the case that a technology percolates for a period of time below the surface before it rises to general visibility. That’s the story of indoor location, which has been around for years but is now gaining momentum — in large part because of moves that Apple is making.
In March the company bought WiFiSlam, and indoor location was suddenly on the map — so to speak. Since that time there’s been growing interest in indoor location and related marketing opportunities, which include in-store couponing and notifications. Believe it or not there are more than a hundred startups in the “indoor location ecosystem.”
Now Apple is now further raising the profile of indoor/in-store location through the deployment of iBeacons throughout its 254 retail stores. According to a report from AP this morning:
On Friday, Apple Inc. began using the technology at its 254 U.S. stores to send you messages about products, events and other information – tailored to where you are inside, provided you have downloaded the Apple Store app and have given Apple permission to track you.
Using the iBeacon feature, the app will notify you if the computer you ordered is ready for pickup, for example. Show a clerk your screen with the order number, and the clerk will get it for you. Walking by an iPhone table? You may get a message asking if you want to upgrade, check your upgrade availability and see if you can get money for trading in your old phone.
While all these notification scenarios may not come to pass it’s safe to say there are a range of compelling use cases — both for Apple and consumers — coming from indoor location. There are also a range of technologies available to locate people in indoor spaces. Most of them are not yet widely deployed. It’s also important to note that their accuracy can vary significantly.
Apple iBeacons use a technology called Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), which is relatively cheap to deploy in stores and venues and built into iOS 7. WiFi is the most widely distributed indoor location technology but it’s less accurate than BLE. The accuracy requirements depend on the objectives of the retailer or marketer. That’s another conversation.
BLE is also a technology that may effectively marginalize NFC in the US market.
Most of the major US retailers (e.g., Macy’s, Lowe’s, WalMart), as well as airports, hospitals, college campuses and museums are either actively deploying or experimenting with indoor location. Nordstrom received considerable negative press after it was revealed the company was testing indoor analytics. Much of that coverage was superficial and played off the recent NSA spying scandal.
While it’s true that privacy is a major issue for indoor location, it’s one that can readily be addressed through opt-in consumer permission and education. (People also always forget that closed circuit cameras have been in stores for more than a generation.) A New York-based group called The Future of Privacy Forum recently announced a code of conduct for indoor location/analytics to establish best practices and protect consumer privacy.
Spooked by the bad coverage that Nordstrom unfairly suffered, most retailers have been afraid to talk about their indoor location initiatives. But now that Apple is rolling iBeacons out to all the company’s stores others may be less shy. And those retailers not testing indoor location, which has a wide range of B2B and B2C uses, may find that the time is now to start.