A year after Apple launched its iBeacons initiative the company looks set to develop it further. If FCC filings are to be believed, Apple is on the verge of releasing its own iBeacon hardware.

In addition, a new location based app recommendations feature in iOS 8 could cut down on the need for notifications to open apps.

iBeacons is Apple's name for a Bluetooth-based micro-locations system that works a bit like an indoors GPS that can allow retailers, museums and businesses to find out exactly where people are, so they can automatically serve up relevant interactions to customers' phones. Apple’s iBeacons technology in iOS works by monitoring signals from Bluetooth LE (BLE) beacons. Read more about iBeacons here: What is Apple's iBeacon.

Despite beacon technology being around for the past four years, and shown off by Nokia at Nokia World in 2010, it wasn’t until Apple showed it on a single slide at its 2013 WWDC show that the technology world truly got excited.

Over the past year, developers and companies worldwide have been testing and deploying their Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons to interact with Apple’s iBeacon software.  So far we have seen iBeacon being used at Major League Baseball courts across the US, in a huge range of retail stores, trialled by Virgin Airlines for enhanced customer service and countless other examples and use cases.

iBeacon Notification successes and challenges

According to stats from inMarket trials of the technology, the US has seen app usage increase by 16.5 times for users who receive notifications triggered by nearby beacons. Already, beacons are helping to increase usage of location-relevant apps and keep users in the apps for longer.

One of the ways that these beacon deployments have encouraged users to open apps is through push notifications. Whilst these have worked, there is a danger that, as the success of beacons continues, users become desensitised to beacon activated notifications. This would be bad news for beacons, as users would increasingly elect to turn off Bluetooth or location based services (if they haven’t already due to fears about battery life).

With beacons, the real potential is with what can be done to provide users with exactly what they need, at the right time.

How iOS 8 location notifications work

It looks like Apple is committed to the technology, based on the FCC filings suggesting that it is developing its own iBeacon hardware and the iOS 8 location based recommendations feature. 

We can only speculate on exactly how the new location based app recommendations feature in iOS 8 works. It appears to be a mixture of geo-location information about popular apps, possibly business data from Apple’s Maps solution and iBeacon. It’s likely that it isn’t simply based on which apps are most commonly used in a specific location; if it were, then Facebook, Tinder or CandyCrush would likely come up no matter where you happened to be. The recommendation feature suggests useful apps for users right on the lock screen making it easier to launch apps.

Recommendations instead appear to be more intelligent, and perhaps make use of information about businesses that are nearby. For example, the Barclays Pingit app comes up in our Bristol office, which is five floors above a Barclays bank. In our testing, we have also seen iBeacon-enabled apps highlighted on the lock screen whenever their beacons are in range. This means that for companies who want users to be using certain apps in certain locations, beacon technology may become even more important.

Whatever the method is of determining the most relevant app, its icon is displayed in the bottom left corner of iOS 8’s lock screen opposite the camera icon. Users can simply swipe it upwards to take action. If the user already has the app installed, it will be launched; otherwise they’ll be taken to its listing on the App Store.

The benefits of using iBeacons

Retail is a sector where the importance of keeping users in the specific retailers’ ecosystems is obvious. Currently, there is nothing stopping users from getting their phones out in a shop and looking for products through eBay, Amazon or a competitor. However, if retailers can keep customers in their apps whilst in their stores, they stand a better chance of delivering the right services to inevitably lead to more sales. Now, rather than using beacons to send notifications just to get users to open apps, retailers can reserve those notifications just for delivering offers or personalised alerts that actually enhance the retail experience, rather than try to interrupt it.

Beacons merge the lines between real world behaviour and digital activity. For virtually any business, there are a number of benefits in their app being automatically featured, dependent on the user’s location. Firstly, ease of access is key. If the right app comes up in the right location, the user doesn’t have to go looking for the right app to use. If your app is buried in a folder, would the user open it as often?

A second benefit is around marketing costs. Whether or not the location service uses information from Maps, or just geolocation information about popular apps, the OS provides this functionality for 'free' and helps make apps more prominent to users. This means more users, a better rate of return and a better overall service (if the app has been thought out right in the first place, of course).

It seems as though the new app recommendation system is going to be key for helping to drive app usage. There will be a certain amount of curation and data intelligence to ensure that it truly is the right app, for the right location. How much of a role iBeacon plays in this remains to be seen, so far though, they appear to play a pretty significant role.

Read about Apple's plans for NFC in the iPhone 6

James Frost, a senior iOS developer at Mubaloo working at the firms MiBeacons division