New iPhone software application aims to change the way we shop

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 October, 2013, 6:25pm

Calling Apple a has-been is now the trend among technology watchers. The recent churning-out of yet another apparently identikit iPhone did nothing to stop the Apple-bashing.

Nevertheless, although the new iPhone 5s might appear to lack a killer new app, inside is a clever technology that could help change the way we shop.

The simultaneous launch of a new operating system, iOS7, for the iPhone and iPad hides within it a new app called iBeacon. It is the most serious attempt yet to banish cash - and much more besides. It's based around a key technology called Bluetooth low energy (BLE), also known as Bluetooth 4.0, that "beacons" installed in stores and elsewhere will use to locate and communicate with iPhones in the vicinity. The stretch is about 50 metres, so you're only being tracked briefly.

It could mean walking into - or past - a branch of, say, Pacific Coffee, and immediately receiving a coupon for a free refill. But it gets even cleverer than that. Multiple beacons around the store can sense where you are, so could target you with product-specific offers.

As you walk up to pay for something, the beacon will know and communicate with an app on your iPhone to make the transaction - no cards or cash necessary.

"This technology is not tappable - it knows your location and can transmit data without any tapping ... and it costs about US$99 a unit," says James Connelly, managing director and co-founder of London-based mobile marketing company Fetch, adding that iBeacon is very different from the near-field communication (NFC) technology found in almost all Android devices.

"NFC is tappable data share," he says. "A lot of people mistakenly associate it with mobile, but it's most commonly used to transfer consumer private data, such as card payments." In Hong Kong, the most famous use of NFC technology is the Octopus card.

"It allows things like payments and loyalty programmes to work almost invisibly," says Mark Carter, vice-president of product mobile at digital wallet company Skrill. "Where NFC requires an object to be in close proximity to a sensor to exchange data, iBeacon uses Bluetooth low energy, which allows much more data to be communicated over a wider distance with the phone still in the user's pocket."

It's that last hands-free feature that could prove crucial, but don't be tempted to think of this as iBeacon versus NFC, because Android has recently updated its operating system to 4.3 - also known as KitKat - to support access to the same technology.

Meanwhile, iBeacon is expected to help make a science of in-store analytics - where you walk to first in a shop, where you linger, and so on - to create for a business a personal profile of its customers, but it's not just about shopping. Each beacon will have its geographical co-ordinates embedded within, thereby extending GPS-like features indoors as well as outdoors.

This could mean that finding your way around an airport, train station, hotel or shopping mall becomes as easy as navigating in the street. It could have all kinds of ramifications at home, where the presence of your phone near, say, a beacon installed in the front door could switch-on the lights - or unlock the door.

It's no wonder app developers are salivating over iBeacon. Who said that Apple's latest wares lacked a killer app?