Though pundits and Android fans have often derided Apple for not including the technology known as "near-field communications"
(NFC) into its products, the technology thus far has seen very limited use and slow growth
. In part, the pressure put on Apple was designed to goad the company into kicking NFC into the mainstream. In response, Apple created an alternate technology it calls "iBeacons,"
-- and has quietly used it for possibly the first time in a new setup option for third-gen Apple TVs.
An iOS 7-equipped iPhone 4S, 5, 5c or 5s -- or another iOS device that supports iOS 7 and Bluetooth 4.0/Bluetooth Low Energy, such as a third-generation iPad or later, or a fifth-gen iPod touch -- can simply be tapped on a newly-activated Apple TV and the users' Wi-Fi network information, iTunes Store login and other preferences are transferred almost instantly, saving the user a great deal of setup. The iBeacons technology makes use of Bluetooth Low Energy to sense the location of an iOS device and measure the distance -- a process called "ranging" -- before delivering a payload of specific information.
The technique, which mimics the NFC behavior but uses much less power
and is thought to be more secure, only works with the third-generation black Apple TV box, since it is the only model with a Bluetooth chip.
Apple appears to believe that Bluetooth 4.0 has more features and opportunities for use than NFC setups, and is likely to expand options for employing iBeacons as adoption of BT 4.0 grows ever more widespread. The company has been experimenting with alternative payment systems for some time
, and iBeacons could open the door to low-power contactless payment systems, self-guided tours that pop up information as tourists approach an object, expanded use of Passbook and other features.