Starting today, Apple will have another way to communicate with and track visitors within its U.S. retail stores, using the new iBeacon messaging and locating system that’s built into iPhones and iPads. According to an Associated Press story, Apple has installed iBeacon software on several store display products within each store, and has mounted stand-alone iBeacon devices at strategic locations. The devices will send welcome messages and product information as visitors move around the store, and also track visitors’ movements, most likely for later analysis by the company. Apple demonstrated the iBeacon system to an AP reporter this week at the Fifth Avenue (NYC) retail store, where 20 iBeacons are beaming store-wide and short-range signals. Apple said users must have a Bluetooth 4.0 device and be running the Apple Store app. They made it clear that users must specifically give permission twice to use iBeacon: once to receive information from the iBeacons, and again to allow Apple to track their location within the store. The AP described two likely uses of the iBeacon in the stores: When you enter a store iBeacon will send you a status update on your Personal Pickup order, or when you pass by an iPhone 5s display table, it would send you an offer to update your older iPhone. Many of the promoted features of iBeacon are not applicable to Apple stores, including transmitted coupons, rebates, sale offers or affinity discounts, since Apple offers discounts only on Black Friday. Also, many of iBeacon’s potential benefits are already provided to visitors through the Apple Store app via a Wi-Fi connection. Beyond the iBeacon news, the fact that Apple briefed an AP reporter is remarkable. The company is famously secretive about its retail store operations, and rarely provides pre-announcements of any new stores, policies or technology. Update: Read my perspective about the usefulness of iBeacon for Apple’s stores. In February 2014 a Qualcomm exec said the company’s Gimbal product was being used by Apple in their retail stores.
Initially, there have been few other reports of iBeacon messages appearing on a visitor’s iPhone. But when they do appear, they don’t match the description that an Apple representative provided to the AP. The actual Apple Store app does not provide any warning or explanation to the user about being tracked within the store, and does not ask permission to do so. As a result, it’s not clear if Apple is receiving any data at all from the iOS devices that move about the store, and would allow a degree of “tracking” customers’ movements.
As for usability, the app requires a user to configure his/her iOS device to enable Bluetooth (obvious and simple), and turn on Background App Refresh (somewhat obscure). Less obvious is that the user must walk around the store looking at an iOS device, or pull it out of a pocket when it receives an iBeacon message.
The screen below shows what appears on your iPhone when you first start the upgraded Apple Store app. The screen asks for your permission to accept iBeacon messages. The screen does not ask permission to use the phone’s location.
If you press on the “View examples…” button, the screen below appears with potential messages you might receive.
After you press Enable from the first screen, the message below appears, instructing you to turn on Bluetooth and configure a particular setting that will allow a store iBeacon to operate in the background and update the screen with messages. Behind this information screen you can see the standard store welcome screen, triggered by detection of a Wi-Fi signal from your iOS device.
Tbe two messages below were posted on-line by someone who visited the Fifth Avenue (NYC) store. They are so-called “lock screen” messages because they can appear when your iOS device screen is off, and the phone is in the locked condition.
E-mail this story