The last few times iPhone users updated their operating systems per Apple
) prompting, they may have noticed something weird. Those of us who keep Bluetooth turned off for battery and privacy or security reasons suddenly had Bluetooth turned on by default after the update.
There are scattered complaints about it in the Apple support forum. "It's new to iOS7," is the standard response from other users. Apple did not respond to emailed inquiries about the change to users' settings. (Siri wasn't very helpful either.)
Greg Sterling, a senior analyst for Opus Research who organizes a conference about location marketing, had no knowledge of Apple turning Bluetooth on by default, but was impressed if it's true. "It's a critical piece here," he says. "Without Bluetooth, iBeacons won't work."
A plausible reason why Apple may be turning on Bluetooth is to bolster the use of iBeacon, a new technology from the smartphone giant that turns your phone into a homing beacon, helping retailers sense and communicate with phone-toting consumers in their vicinity.
A person working in the geo-marketing space grew very excited when I called to ask about the implications of Apple turning Bluetooth on by default. "That’s a huge deal," he said. "The 7.1 iOS makes a big push in what iBeacon can do, but Bluetooth has to be turned on."
iBeacons communicate via low-energy Bluetooth to awaken apps so that they can send messages or coupons to a person's phone, or send information about the person via the app. There’s a nice explainer via beacon-maker Estimote on the uses here, which notes at the end that business owners get better quantitative location data about customers.
"It's interesting to see how iBeacons are becoming a much more significant part of the Apple experience. The most recent iOS update extends the ability of an app to get location even if the app is not open," says Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum. Polonetsky notes that Apple has emphasized that the new Bluetooth is lower-powered so that it's less of a drain on the battery.
"iBeacon now works when the app is closed," said a celebratory headline from one trade blog. A person in the industry said it just works better with Apple's recent updates, so that an iBeacon communicates with a person's smartphone instantly rather than with a delay of several minutes -- minutes that are crucial in real-time marketing, as the target could then be blocks past the American Eagle
) store that wanted to send her a deal.
What would be Apple's motivation in forcing iBeacon on users by turning their Bluetooth on?
iBeacon is one of many technologies that retailers can use to track consumers in stores, or airports, or fill-in-location-of-your-choice, says Opus Research’s Sterling. There's also acoustic or sonic tracking technologies, LED lighting, magnetic energy, Wi-Fi, cameras . . . "Public WiFi is the most widely deployed technology but it's less accurate in tracking exactly where the person is," says Sterling. "iBeacon has emerged as a supplemental or alternate technology to provide better accuracy. It’s got the buzz and early lead among these other technologies."
He says one of the advantages is how cheap iBeacons are and how easy they are to stick up on the walls. "It doesn’t require much IT knowledge," he says. The technical part is configuring the beacons to work with your particular app.
"There's a lot of excitement and a lot of momentum around building location sensing technologies out," says Sterling. "The superficial angle is that retailers want lots of data about consumers, as if retailers are the NSA. The deeper reasoning is that retailers want to provide better experiences to customers, new tools for finding things in stores and helping them get more information about products.The challenge is to not screw it up by being too aggressive or too ham-handed in your implementation. You have to be respectful of privacy and permissions."
What Sterling finds interesting is who is going to profit from this. It's the real-world equivalent of Google selling ads based on what people are searching for online. If you're in the appliance section of a Best Buy
) store with your smartphone, GE
might all want to compete to target you with ads, says Sterling. "Who's going to get to charge for that access to the consumers?" he asks.
As to why Apple might want to get iPhone users to keep their Bluetooth turned on, Sterling says it could help Apple become dominant in the real-time location marketing space.
"This extends their whole ecosystem. If iBeacon becomes dominant or standard, it expands their reach and reinforces Apple and iOS usage," says Sterling. "There's also the idea that they may get into payments, which we’re seeing with Passbook. With their hundreds of millions of users, and iTunes having credit cards, they could turn all that on, and iBeacon could be used for payment in stores rather than swiping credit cards. I don't think there's necessarily a massive plan or conspiracy, but I do think they have a number of ideas about how the technology could be used and they see advantages in getting the technology out there and people using it."
In the meanwhile, if you don't like all this, make sure to turn off Bluetooth after you update your phone. And you should update your iPhone's software if you haven’t recently, as there was a major security problem that recently got fixed