Location based services are now the norm. From sat navs to google maps on our phone, we all understand that our devices can communicate with satellites or other location technology to try to pinpoint where we are stood.

There are options available to brands and venues who want to take advantage of what Location Based Services (or LBS) can offer, but what are the pros and cons of WiFi versus Beacon technology?

What is WiFi location based technology?

WiFi enabled devices emit regular ‘probes’ when trying to connect to WiFi. WiFi access points can be placed in a certain way inside a venue, so that the position of a given device in the space can then be calculated, using the strength of the phone’s probes and timing to estimate the distance from each AP.

WiFi location can be thought of as an indoor GPS. WiFi based positioning systems can be used where GPS is inadequate for some reason, such as an indoor space, or during signal blockage.

What technology does WiFi LBS use?

There are many methods and technologies used for computing coordinates of a device. Common methods involve the use of RSSI values, using multiple received signal measurements to calculate the source’s location, and fingerprinting, which can also be RSSI based, and collects on-site RF data to map signal measurements to locations.

What is WiFi LBS used for?

WiFi LBS is mostly used in restaurants, hotels, retail, stadia and even in healthcare. For customers, it can be used to provide people with relevant information to approximately where they are standing – for example, to show them money off coupons or direct them where to go on a map. For brands or venue owners, they are able to see (for the first time in most cases) a clearer picture of how people are moving in a physical space, even plotting them as dots on a map. Are there congested points, or areas where nobody goes? How many staff are there in the space? How long are the queue or line times? How could the space be optimised more efficiently?

Pros and cons of WiFi LBS

The main benefit of WiFi is that the technology is available and very widely applicable in most parts of the world. It can already be used with most WiFi hardware and detects all WiFi enabled devices including smartphones and tablets. It is a relatively inexpensive solution.

It doesn’t require the person to open an app on their device or have Bluetooth running. However, WiFi must have a connection to the internet to transfer data. Plus in order to receive permission to interrupt someone with a message, they need to have logged onto the WiFi or given their permission in another way.

Currently the accuracy of the device pin-pointing is pretty good – approximately 2-5 metres, when configured correctly. For most venues this is adequate enough to give a good picture of what is occurring.

What is a Beacon?

A beacon is a small transmitter that can be placed at a known location, which transmits a continuous or periodic radio signal with limited information content (e.g. its identification or location), on a specified radio frequency.

So what is an iBeacon?

iBeacon is actually just Apple’s term for an ordinary Beacon. The physical Beacon itself has not changed. Apple have recently changed the iOS software to deal with Beacons differently – which is what has changed.

Apple Inc. say that iBeacon is an indoor positioning system, involving “a new class of low-powered, low-cost transmitters that can notify nearby devices of their presence.”

In summary, Beacons can enable a mobile device to react in some way to their presence. Beacons can also tell if a device is very close to them – see how beacon ranging works here. Once the device gets further away it has much more limited accuracy.

What technology do Beacons use?

It uses Bluetooth low energy (BLE), also known as Bluetooth 4.0 or Bluetooth Smart. The beacons come in different formats, including small coin cell powered devices, USB sticks and software versions.

What are Beacons used for?

Beacons work on certain devices such as iPhone 4s and later, Android devices with Bluetooth 4.0 and only Android phones that are 4.3 and later.

Beacons can used to trigger events, such as a notification of discounted items or to tell you where an item you are looking for is located.

How do iPhone and Android phones react differently to Beacons?

Both Android phones and iPhones are constantly listening for ID signals from Beacons.

With an iPhone – the ‘listening’ happens within the OS now, where all your applications Beacon IDs are listed. iBeacons are registered against an application. The OS has first order access to this. The iPhone will then only wake up the relevant application as and when it needs to. This means it doesn’t affect battery power as much.

With an Android phone – any beacon can reach out. That is, Android Applications can be notified of Beacons that aren’t necessarily registered to an application on the phone. This means an Android phone’s battery life will get used up, the more beacons there are out there trying to talk to your phone. The application will get woken up by a relevant Beacon, and then can decide whether it needs to give you a notification, or update the application state / user interface.

So Android arguably have a less efficient, but more ‘open’ approach to Beacons.

Pros and cons of Beacon technology

The benefits of Beacons is that they require very little power due to the Beacons low energy (and therefore the phone doesn’t lose battery). It can provide a very accurate picture of where someone is standing.

However, Beacons only work on certain devices. Beacons are simple devices with a short battery life so at some point would need to be replaced: potentially annually. Whether you’ll pick up a signal from a Beacon will also vary: walls, doors, and other physical objects will shorten signal range (as Apple tells us the signals are also affected by water, which means the human body itself could affect the signals.) The ability to switch them off is very well hidden in the Apple iPhone settings, we’re not sure if that’s a pro or a con!

Messages cannot be delivered to a person’s device unless they have at some point downloaded a relevant application. Which is probably the biggest issue for running effective LBS campaigns in the case of most retailers.

Could WiFi work with Beacons?

When technologies meet and work together they often can become more powerful. In the future we predict WiFi and Beacons working together in spaces. With WiFi providing both guest WiFi, analytics and a holistic macro location solution and beacons providing micro location information – when someone is using the relevant brand’s application.

We thought we’d let the CEO of Purple WiFi, Gavin Wheeldon, have the final word on this:

“Beacons definitely have a future and a place in location tracking. The main drawback for now is the fact that they usually only work when a person has the store/venue application enabled, which limits the number of people who can be reached. In future I can see us partnering up and using Beacons or other low-cost sensors to compliment our WiFi location services, taking advantage of all technology available in order to make our proposition stronger and more accurate.”