Apple's spamtastic iBeacon retail alerts launch with Frisco FAIL

In-store nagification system to be up and running in time for holiday spending orgy

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Apple on Friday fired up its iBeacon push-notification service, which it describes as a "location and proximity detection technology," in its 254 US retail stores – minus at least one, but more on that in a moment – adding a new dimension to fanbois' shopping experiences just in time for the holiday spending spree.

iBeacon sends in-store notifications to an iDevice's Apple Store app by means of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons placed throughout an Apple retail store. Notifications are based on which beacon you're near, and can include such info as deals and discounts, news on what's happening in the store that day, info about your iPhone's upgradability, and the like.

The whole concept sounded a wee bit odd to us, so early Friday morning we popped our iPhone 5 into our Levi 501s and walked the two blocks from Vulture Annex to Apple's flagship San Francisco retail store on Stockton Street.

No dice. According to a store employee with whom this reporter spoke, each Apple retail establishment needs to load its own in-store beacon data, and the Stockton Street store hadn't yet done so. He recommended that we come back "soon" and try again – though he couldn't provide a definition of exactly what he meant by "soon."

And so we tried again mid-afternoon, but met with the same result. Although the store's location services recognized that we had arrived ...

iOS 7 Apple Store app: welcome badge

Welcome to the SF Apple retail store on a chilly afternoon

... and the Apple Store app told us that it would send "helpful information" to us as we wandered about the store ...

iOS 7 Apple Store app: iBeacon notification screen

Perhaps we can "make the most" of our visit some other day

... it didn't. We tracked down another red-shirted store employee [Apple execs don't watch Star Trek?—Ed.], who checked over his in-store intercom with a higher-up who confirmed that the iBeacon system wasn't yet operational. Red Shirt couldn't provide any info on when it might be.

And so we are as yet unable to provide you, dear Reg reader, with any sense of where on the helpful>intrusive>irritating>infuriating continuum iBeacon's in-store notifications might lie.

However, even without iBeacon up and running, the Apple Store app can be used to scan some items for their prices and pay for them using your Apple account, reserve products, read customer reviews, make reservations at the in-store Genius Bar, and a few other retail niceties.

iOS 7 Apple Store app: Genus Bar scheduling screen

Even without iBeacon, we could set up a Genius Bar appointment

When the AP was briefed on iBeacon earlier this week in New York's Fifth Avenue store – which, by the way, is open "24/7, 365 days a year" – the notification service was apparently fully loaded and up and running.

AP reports that about 20 iBeacon transmitters were in operation, some being discrete beacons and others being iPads and iPhones doing their retail duty. Some were set to be more long-range than others, they write, while other were set up to be of more limited range so that, for example, if you walked by an iPhone display iBeacon would send you a notification "asking if you want to upgrade, check your upgrade availability and see if you can get money for trading in your old phone."

How much personal information Apple is slurping while you and your iDevice – which, remember, has a unique ID – are wandering about their retail stores is subject to their Privacy Policy. Apple has repeatedly said that it's scrupulous about its users' privacy, but scrupulosity has proven to be a somewhat fungible concept among many a data gatherer recently.

That said, the AP reports that Apple says it doesn't collect information about shoppers in its stores – iBeacon is a push-notification system that's triggered when the Apple Store app senses a beacon, and the beacon doesn't need to know who you are or your iDevice's UID.

Comfortable with that? If so and you want to give iBeacon a try, know that your iDevice needs to have Bluetooth 4.0 – turned on, obviously – and be running iOS 7. Compatible devices include the iPhone 4s or later, 3rd-gen iPad or later, any iPad mini, or a 5th-gen iPod touch or later. You can find more info about iBeacon here.

If for some reason we find difficult to fathom – other than developing iBeacon services yourself – you should want to run it on a Mac that is either Bluetooth-equipped or has a third-party Bluetooth 4.0 dongle installed, you can join the party by popping $9.99 for the MacBeacon app from Radius Networks.

You won't likely be developing for your local Apple retail store – although San Francisco's Stockton Street flagship appears to need a bit of help – but Apple has high hopes for iBeacon beyond its use in its own stores. For example, Major League Baseball plans to roll out iBeacon services to be accessed by its At the Ballpark app, and gave a demo earlier this year of iBeacon-enabled notifications about in-park offerings such as souvenir-shop discounts and – we can only hope – beer offerings that trump the standard exorbitantly priced Bud Lite.

We could see iBeacon playing a helpful role in, for example, museum exhibitions or tourist attractions – but only if its security aspects are well-explained and proven to be ironclad.

Your Reg reporter, for one, is the type who doesn't even join supermarket "loyalty card" promotions for fear that his affection for Stone Brewing Company's Double Bastard will become known to his insurance company.

Perhaps the Stockton Street store's failure to get iBeacon up and running on launch day was a blessing in disguise. ®

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