What’s the best micro-location technology?

What’s the best micro-location technology for offline-to-online interaction? We compare: iBeacon, BLE, Bluetooth, NFC, QR, Wi-Fi and GPS.

The gap between online and offline interaction is closing with the use of micro-location services.  So what’s the best micro-location technology? We compare: iBeacon, BLE, Bluetooth, NFC, QR, Wi-Fi and GPS.


Apple’s take on Bluetooth 4.0 - Low Energy. Thanks to protocol hackers, the standard is now supported on select Android devices.  Although iBeacon works on top of BLE, the standard provides additional features that make it attractive for use in proximity sensitive smartphone apps.

iBeacon advantages

Frictionless experience - the technology is intuitive, fast and simple

Native OS integration - special libraries makes for more robust application integration

The wow factor - one of the few technologies that has consumers saying “that’s cool”

iBeacon disadvantages

iOS centric - premium experience for iOS, limited on other platforms

Requires an app - consumer must install a smartphone app

Active powered - beacons must be actively powered by a battery or a/c


Bluetooth Smart / Bluetooth Low Energy Bluetooth v4.0 / BLE

The new version of Bluetooth that allows for proximity sensing and alerting.  Supported by a range of smartphone platforms including: iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry.  Unlike the older Bluetooth standard, BLE is ultra low power meaning the service can be left enabled at all times with little impact to smartphone battery consumption.

BLE advantages

Multiple use cases - flexible enough to support promotion, payment and tracking events

Position triangulation - supports highly accurate position tracking - less than 1 meter

Widespread standard - supported on most smartphones

BLE disadvantages

Requires an app - consumer must install a smartphone app

Active powered - beacons must be actively powered by a battery or a/c

Consumer awareness - the technology is new and not widely known


Bluetooth (1.0-2.0)

A version of Bluetooth that has been around since the 90’s and primary used for pairing mobile phone accessories.  This older technology was also used (in limited use cases) for providing information and coupons in smart posters.  One of the more popular uses was providing movie trailers at cinemas via Bluetooth enabled movie posters.

Bluetooth advantages

Widespread standard - supported on most phones, including older feature phones

Established - the first technology for proximity push advertising and marketing

Bluetooth disadvantages

Poor customer experience - consumer needed to pair with posters, a complex process

Power drain - the older standard was a drain on phone batteries

Unreliable - the pairing technology often failed with multiple users in area


QR (Quick Response) codes

QR codes have been with us since the mid 90’s.  Originally designed for industrial use, QR made it’s way into consumer use a decade ago.  Unlike traditional barcodes, QR codes can be quickly read when scanned from any direction and work with smartphones and older feature phones.

Whilst many have pronounced the death of QR, reports from US marketers indicated a rise in scan use by 38% year over year between 2012 and 2013.  Granted, this rise was observed in traditional print media such as magazine advertisements.

QR Code advantages

Low cost of deployment - same as traditional printing costs

Greatest potential service base - they work with nearly any phone with a camera

Well recognised - studies indicate that consumers are receptive to QR in the right context

QR Code disadvantages

High friction experience - customers have to take out their smartphone, launch a scanning application, then scan a code which takes them to an offer or landing page

Lowest information density - QR holds a limited amount of information

An eye sore - in retail use, the codes are bit of an eye sore that take up valuable advertising space


Near Field Communication (NFC)

NFC is (relatively) big in Japan.  The technology has been built into phones since the early 2000’s and can be use for transit ticketing, vending machine purchases and small goods purchases.

NFC is built into most premium Android and Windows mobile phones but is not currently supported by Apple’s iOS devices.  NFC tags can be used to automatically trigger events like:

-Direction to web sites

-Provide contact information like telephone numbers

-Provide links to smartphone applications

NFC advantages

Low friction experience - users only need to tap a tag

Lower cost of deployment - typically $0.10 each in bulk

Widespread use in payments - nearly 60% of qualified transactions are via NFC in Australia

NFC disadvantages

Lack of iOS support - iOS has over a 40% phone share in Australia

Security issues - hackers have used rogue NFC stickers to compromise phones in mass

Short range - no ability to triangulate position or interact beyond 5cm



Through specialised software, it’s possible to use Wi-Fi as a micro-location service.  Accuracy will vary depending on Wi-Fi base station configuration.  The technology can work as a stand-alone location service or used in conjunction with GPS for increased location accuracy.

Wi-Fi advantages

Common standard - many consumers have Wi-Fi enabled on smartphones and services like google maps can leverage Wi-Fi data

Existing infrastructure - many facilities have public Wi-Fi installed

Passive detection - users do not need an application to be tracked (*see privacy post)

Wi-Fi disadvantages

Power hungry - Wi-Fi consumes smartphone power and base stations require a/c power

Fit-out - base stations may need power and ethernet wiring, requiring expensive electrician services

Accuracy - accuracy beyond 1 meter requires expensive installation, limiting the use cases


Global Positioning Service (GPS)

GPS powers the majority of location experiences on smartphones. Nearly every smartphone includes GPS functionality, though its use indoors is tempered due poor signal reception.  Location precision and accuracy can be augmented by other micro-location technology such as Wi-Fi and BLE.

GPS advantages

Widespread standard - supported on most smartphones

Lowest cost - cost is limited to defining geographic bounds

Highly integrated - the technology can easily be integrated to web and native smartphone apps

GPS disadvantages

Lacks precision and accuracy - unable to uses cases that require reliable resolution under 10 meters

Lack of indoor support - GPS requires line of sight to the sky

Power hungry - GPS consumes significant power, forcing most users to disable the service by default


So which micro-location technology is the most useful?

We propose that no one technology trumps all others.   The best is what works for the customer - one that is simple, frictionless yet ubiquitous.   An effective micro-location strategy will require a combination of these complimentary technologies.