People have been complaining that Apple has stopped innovating. Though that's hardly true, what is true that it's been two and a half years since the latest world-changing innovation from Apple -- the iPad -- and people are getting impatient. My colleague Harry McCracken at Time magazine has calculated that Apple releases a game-changing innovation every three-odd years, so it's a bit early for the Next Big Thing. But we may get it soon in the form of iBeacons, which debuted quietly in iOS 7 and will be in OS X 10.9 Mavericks.
Speculation around iBeacon has been swirling in the retail circles for a few weeks now, though Apple gave it a fleeting mention at its Worldwide Developers Conference event in June. I believe iBeacons will be a big deal, but it's not the kind of innovation that's as easy to put in a box as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad were. Bear with me as I explain what iBeacons encompasses and why it's so important.
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First, iBeacons comprise Apple's set of APIs and code libraries for location services over Bluetooth Low Energy radios (aka BLE, Bluetooth Smart, and Bluetooth 4.0), which Apple has had in its Macs (2011 models and later), iPhones (4S and later), iPod Touches (2012 models and later), and iPads (third-gen and later) for three years -- there's already a huge base of iBeacons-compatible devices out in the real world. By contrast, Android devices largely started adopting the technology this past year, as did BlackBerry's Z10 and Q10, Windows Phone 8 smartphones, and Windows 8 tablets.
iBeacons is also the name given to BLE hardware devices, such as those from Kontakt, Red Bear, and Roximity. They're also called just "beacons"; some vendors started calling them iBeacons after Apple's announcement. A beacon is a BLE transponder, sending and receiving data via Bluetooth radio signals.
At minimum, a BLE device such as your smartphone can be detected by a beacon when it comes in range, so people and devices can be tracked as they move through a space. You can think of it like indoor GPS. For this low-level use of beacons, any BLE device can be seen: iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, PC, Mac, and so on. In fact, it's not just computing devices; the technology could intelligently track hospital gurneys, golf carts, shopping carts, cars in parking lots, construction site tools, animals in a wild park, and so on.
The real power of beacons is the interaction they will enable via peer-to-peer communications when used with a smart device, which means that device's apps need to use the same APIs as the beacon and its back-end services do. That's where iBeacons APIs come in -- or similar APIs from Google, Microsoft, and other platform providers that decide to support the interactive BLE technology. The beacon makers also have their own APIs, of course.