Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tech War: BLE vs NFC

Coupons--not just for trash anymore!
Courtesy of djhsilver, Flickr
BARCELONA--At this year's Mobile World Congress (MWC), Wirecard is ready to rake in the dough by offering coupons and loyalty programs with its wireless payment services using Bluetooth low energy (BLE) technology, as posted earlier in Mobile at Mizzou. While BLE, which uses beacons to wirelessly transmit messages to your mobile phone if detected within a certain distance, is the hip new thing for business-by-mobile, it faces not only some harsh criticism but also competition from already-established near field communication (NFC) technology.

While BLE sounds like the answer to any advertiser's prayers, others have raised concerns bout security, privacy, and general annoyance. Many have voiced concerns about spamming as they might peruse stores or large venues like shopping malls. How often would a consumer be receiving these ads if he/she was to walk around a mall? Would he/she receive more than one ad from the same store if they pass it a few times? Should those visiting the Mall of America be prepared for "never-ending vibrating pants syndrome" as their phone alerts them to all those ads and coupons? If this looks like the future of BLE, consumers will view beacon technology as annoying and bothersome rather than attractive.

Easy enough for Barbie to hack?
Courtesy of Nicole Hennig, Flickr
If sheer annoyance is enough to shut BLE down, what about privacy and security? Marketers will hurry to rake in as much information about individual customers as they can, but consumers may not be aware of how much data is being used or how it is being used. In addition, BLE might offer a new gateway for hackers to intercept data or track customers, as seemingly anyone with a mobile phone can be connected to a public beacon.

Furthermore, Retail Info Systems News outlines three other concerns:
  • Beacons are easy to clone. Copying a beacon's unique identifier can easily be accomplished and placed onto new equipment. Unprotected systems can fall victim to crowd steering and other spoofing attacks.
  • Distance is difficult to determine. Beacons are inaccurate at close distances. When put closer than 12 feet together--a real possibility in a retail setting--they interfered with each other.
  • Technology is ahead of services needed to manage it. Very few managed service providers are offering services to set up beacons, resulting in a lack of consistent monitoring, measurement and management.

Last but not least, there are currently no ways to monitor beacons, either for their true marketing effectiveness or for security purposes.

BLE to be crushed by NFC?
Courtesy of Med PhotoBlog, Flickr
Okay, so, we can admit that BLE has some room for improvement. But there is another force at work against beacon technology. The idea of wireless communication is nothing new to retail; companies have already invested heavily in near field communication (NFC), which offers low speed connection with Bluetooth, WiFi, or chips/tags. Gigaom's Colin Gibbs logically presumes that: 
...retailers are highly unlikely to embrace a new technology until they see BLE--or some other offering--gain traction. Meanwhile, mobile payment providers like ISIS and Google Wallet continue to push their NFC-based offerings.

A pro for NFC can be a con for BLE. While BLE consumers can be passive, NFC technology is passive, meaning users must tap, move, or otherwise find information, hopefully because they want it. NFC is therefore less invasive, as it won't spam users by automatically sending them messages. Advertisers and marketers can rest assured that the reach they get is from consumers that are actually interested in their product. Additionally, NFC assumes everyone has "opted out" of its technology; therefore, those that interact via NFC are aware that their personal information is being used.

Courtesy of pitto94, Flickr

So what's the takeaway here? While NFC currently reigns as the wireless communication tool among retailers, BLE is a noteworthy competitor that has the potential to take the marketing world by force. Like any new technology today, advertisers and marketers must make sure that beacon technology is appropriate for their brand and that their message content is valuable to consumers; otherwise, there's a possibility that BLE will be seen as nothing more than a spammer. But note the word "possibility"--per Peter Parker's wise Uncle Ben, "with great power comes great responsibility." If the marketing and advertising worlds are to adopt BLE, it is up to them to ensure that it is a safe, consumer-friendly, strategic messaging technology that is used to empower, not to exploit, the consumer.

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