Bluetooth beacons are small, fairly inexpensive, usually (but not always) battery powered Bluetooth devices that, when used with a mobile app, provide a superior alternative to detect a user's physical location than the traditional, antiquated way of using a mobile device's GPS.
Bluetooth Beacons vs GPS
So let's say you have an app that requires you to know a user's particular location at a given time in order to work properly. Furthermore, let's say you want to be able to determine your user's location without them having to do anything (i.e. open the app). You can just use the phone's GPS, right? Sure, but here are the issues...
Using a phone's GPS to monitor a user's location continually is an incredible drain on battery life. Anyone who uses Google or Apple Maps when traveling knows exactly how much battery this can eat up.
Having an app use GPS to track you at all times is an incredible invasion of privacy. Even if the app developer vows to never sell, store, or misuse your location data, no one wants an app continually monitoring their location everywhere they go.
GPS has a very real limited accuracy. Yes, it can detect what city block you're on and even what place you're at, but it fails when trying to determine what room you’re in or what floor of a building you're currently on.
Why Beacons Are Awesome
Beacons are awesome because they solve all of the issues above with GPS. Namely...
Unlike GPS, monitoring for Bluetooth beacons has a negligible effect on battery life. The process your phone uses to monitor beacons is exactly similar to the process that monitors your Wifi (ever wonder how your phone immediately connects to your Wifi when you get home?). Beacon monitoring uses a similar process and contrary to popular belief, having your Bluetooth on at all times WILL NOT drain your battery. Don't believe me? Check out the in-depth research our development team has provided on this matter.
Perhaps the most important reason why beacons are superior to GPS is that they respect your privacy. Unlike GPS, apps that monitor for Bluetooth beacons ARE NOT continually tracking your location. The only location data they get is when you're near one of the app's beacons.
Much More Accurate
With Bluetooth beacons, you can determine a user's location down to a particular room and/or floor of a building. It's much more accurate than GPS.
Unfortunately, beacons aren't perfect. Here are the main pitfalls...
The most obvious limitation to using Bluetooth beacons is that it requires a separate physical device which makes things much more complicated than using a hardware-less GPS. However, the benefits of using beacons make this overhead justifiable in many cases.
Requires same permissions as GPS
This is one of my personal annoyances. Unfortunately, for iOS (i.e. Apple devices), to use Bluetooth beacons you must ask for the same permissions that are used by GPS with no indication to the user about the difference. Given the difference in these technologies, it makes no sense why these should be the same permissions. It would help educate the users and allow for users to let apps monitor Bluetooth beacons without them using GPS in the background. We really hope Apple will change this is the future.
Beacons are awesome. GPS is really bad for monitoring location in the background. Apple should separate the permissions required for GPS monitoring and beacon monitoring.