On Tuesday, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) delivered its iBeacon specifications and invited hardware manufacturers to certify devices to carry the iBeacon name. Any company that signs Apple's NDA on the specifications can review them and then submit their devices for certification at no cost. You might assume that this means Apple is tightly controlling the ability of third-party companies to create hardware and compatible iOS apps that can be deployed in stores, stadiums, and just about anyplace else.
You'd be wrong.
Although Apple has registered the iBeacon trademark and has been touting the technology since it was unveiled at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference last summer, the technology isn't Apple-specific. iBeacon is simply Apple's moniker for Bluetooth LE beacons, a technology that is, in fact, multiplatform and can be used on Android devices that support Bluetooth LE.
Plenty of companies already offer Bluetooth LE beacons that are compatible with iOS and Android devices. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and each company has implemented its own beacon management console. The exact options of those consoles and the way beacons interact with mobile apps on user's devices vary. That's partly because beacons involve a stack of different technologies -- the beacons themselves, the management tools, the companion apps that users need to install to receive data from the beacons, and the APIs and services available to developers within a specific mobile OS. The exact beacon function and experience is a combination of these factors.
So what's Apple up to here?
Two ways to look at Apple's plans
One way to interpret Apple's specifications is that they are designed to control, to some extent, the end user experience of beacon-enabled apps on iOS devices. As always, Apple's focus is delivering a high-end experience to its customers. Although Apple hasn't made the details of its specifications or the certification process public, the program will apparently function much like other certified accessory branding that Apple uses including the "Made for iPhone" branding.
The second possibility: Apple is looking to manage the branding of Bluetooth LE beacons more than it is trying to dictate how beacons should function or evolve over time. According to reports in Beekn, a resource site dedicated to Bluetooth LE beacons, and other Apple-specific news sites like 9to5Mac, the specifications are likely to match the typical capabilities of Bluetooth LE devices and are comparable to Bluetooth accessories certified through Apple's MFi program.
Apple was the first company to rollout support for beacons when it released iOS 7 and was one of the first companies to widely deploy beacons in public spaces a couple of months later when it switched them on in all of its U.S. stores. As a result Apple was able to capture the mindshare of the media around beacon technology using the term iBeacon and the term has stuck.
Instead of making it difficult for companies to legally use the term, Apple has a vested interest in allowing any company that delivers a decent experience to use the term. The reason is simply that seeing an iBeacon label on the majority of beacon hardware in the market will help Apple to maintain that mindshare as beacons become a common part of everyday life. Having a name that is distinctly "Apple" attached to beacons as a whole could pay off for Apple and for manufacturers moving forward because it will imply that Apple developed a significant emerging technology.
The bigger question is whether Apple can sustain or even improve on its association with beacon technologies. Although there's a definite value for manufacturers in associating their products with Apple's brand, there's also a risk that doing so could imply to Android users -- or business owners -- that the product may be designed to only function with Apple devices or that they will work better with iPhones and iPads than with Android phones or tablets.
There's also the possibility that Apple is pursuing both of these strategies with its decision to exercise its trademark and brand control over the nascent beacon industry.