Bluetooth LE Beacons Vs. Apple iBeacon. What's the difference?

Ben Howden /

Put simply, a beacon is a small wireless device that broadcasts tiny radio signals. Smartphones that are nearby are able to listen for these signals and communicate with the beacon to determine proximity and trigger an action within a user’s application.

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) refers to the specification of the signal that a beacon broadcasts. The advantage of BLE is that it is low energy (meaning it doesn’t drain your phone’s battery) and it is set to become a standard feature of most modern smartphones, largely thanks to Apple’s endorsement in iOS 7.

So what is iBeacon? This seems to be where most of the confusion lies at the moment as the terms iBeacon and beacons are often used interchangeably. According to Apple, iBeacon is ”a new class of low-powered, low-cost transmitters that can notify nearby iOS 7 devices of their presence.” However, to date Apple has provided very little detail on the specifics of iBeacon. As far as we can establish, iBeacon refers to the software protocols used within an application and the specifications that Apple is planning to release for a beacon to be called an iBeacon. That’s the important part, in theory any beacon can be called iBeacon as long as it meets Apple’s specifications. For now, the only current iBeacon devices which currently meet Apple’s specification are iPhones and iPads.

There’s been plenty of coverage in the media suggesting that the likes of Gimbal, Estimote and Kontakt are competing against iBeacon. However, we feel it’s highly unlikely that Apple are going to produce their own hardware based beacons to compete with these players. Apple are more likely to endorse BLE beacons such as Estimote based on their approach to interpreting Apple’s BLE specification. As for beacon software services, we don’t think Apple are likely to play in this space either.

So there you have it. Right now, iPhones and iPads are the only iBeacons out there. But in the future we expect iBeacon to become a much broader term used for all devices that meet Apple’s standards.