They're in your neighborhood Apple Store, and they're coming to sports stadia, shopping malls, and perhaps downtowns. These little devices use Bluetooth to communicate with your mobile device and a Wi-Fi or Ethernet connection to connect to the Internet, serving as an information waystation. That may sound like just a Wi-Fi access point, but it's not — in fact, beacons aren't access points at all.
Instead, they're location-specific points of contact. That means they serve a small area — Bluetooth's roughly 30-foot range — to provide custom interaction related to that specific area. For example, a walking tour, zoo, or museum could use them to know what you're looking at and provide links to relevant details or to play an audio or video for that tour segment. A stadium could use them to know where you are so that the food you ordered gets to you faster or to tell you the nearest restroom's location. A store's online help or inventory system would know what department you're shopping in.
Beacons don't require interaction, of course — they can simply record the Bluetooth network addresses of devices that come in range to build a model of foot traffic, where people tend to linger, and so on, all of which would be of great interest to retailers, urban planners, and police. But the interesting applications for individual users will involve websites and apps that interact with beacons to know where you are, then customize content and services accordingly. There's a lot of potential for innovation with beacons, as well as potential for marketing and other privacy abuses.
Apple is the power in beacons technology — its iBeacons technology is in every iOS 7 device. iBeacons even lets iOS devices act as beacons (all the retailer iPads and iPod Touches now have a new use). But several companies sell stand-alone beacons, as well as beacons protocols and services that can be used in apps across multiple platforms. Some of those also use Apple's iBeacons protocols, of course.
Because Apple has by far the broadest beacon-capable user base, expect it to be the center of gravity for this technology. Again, expect Google to introduce a similar set of APIs and OS-level hooks in Android at some point.
In March 2008, Apple reworked its failed Apple TV device to be a stand-alone media streamer for both local (iTunes) content and online (iTunes Store) content. In September 2010, Apple reworked its little-used AirTunes technology as AirPlay, allowing iOS and OS X devices to wirelessly stream video and audio content to the Apple TV and licensed AirPlay speakers. The combination ofAirPlay and the Apple TV revolutionized media consumption, letting computers and mobile devices stream content to a variety of playback devices, as well as receive (in the case of iPad and iPhones) media from other devices. The technology has also gained traction in some businesses for conference room presentations.
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