Or: "Your Favorite Pundit is Wrong: Moving Towards Hyper Toothpaste"
Every single article I have seen that talks about the sorta newly-announced Apple iBeacon is getting the point totally wrong. The continued lack of NFC, coupled with this "new" technology leads everyone to the conclusion that they are competitors, and Apple has made their stake.
iBeacons are, at their heart, based on BLE. That stands for Bluetooth Low Energy, and before we get any further "BTLE" doesn't stand for anything at all, so stop using the wrong abbreviation, right now. It's a standard, and indeed is an extension of the Bluetooth we all know and used all the time. Many devices support BLE, and have for a while. Not all phones, unlike what some stupid articles are reporting. But many, and more all the time.
BLE is derived from Bluetooth which was the winner of a series of technologies called PANs, for Personal Area Networks. Like your connection to the internet is Wide Area, and your home or office has a Local Area Network, this is even smaller. Originally, just to get radio from the phone in your pocket to devices on your head or other pockets, or people you stand next to.
They are most useful and designed as M2M or machine to machine networks, where your thermostat will send this very low-power, occasional, tiny bit of data to whatever device needs to know. Apple, and PayPal and soon even more, are trying to use these to end run location based services, so stores (for example) can discover (about) where you are as you walk around, or synch payment based on location. I expect much button pushing, and most data still goes over the mobile network (or WiFi), not over the BLE. That's just for handshake, discovery, and validation.
For more, Matthew Lewis wrote the one and only explanation of iBeacon that isn't totally misinformed and misguided.
These are supposed to kill NFC. That stands for Near Field Communications, and is a subset concerned with putting RFID technology into devices like phones. You have used RFID, if you have just waved a card at a pad by a door to get access to work, at a turnstile to get on the train, or at a payment terminal to, well, pay for things.
And that explains why it's useful. What if you could stop carrying an ID badge, subway pass and credit card and just use your phone for that? Oh, and you can in some places, with significant limits. Nothing about the technology limits this, at all. In the US, contactless payment has been held back by... um, I forget. Some bullshit with banks and mobile operators and everyone else fighting over standards.
When talking about mobiles, there is still button pushing or something else to validate it's you. The mobile network is used to transmit the data, and the NFC is just used to get this tiny amount of information, basically just a serial number (though other things like email addresses and http addresses can be embedded). The clever part to me is that (almost) any active NFC device can read passive devices. Once your phone replaces a credit card, it also can read stickers and posters and anything else a dirt cheap unpowered chip is embedded in.
NFC is short, short, short range. Supposed to be millimeters or inches, and this is true aside from some hacking with directional antennas. Discovery is via stickers and so forth. You have to be told to tap your card/phone to activate it. Think of this in the same vein as barcodes, including QR codes. Passive, short range, limited in data.
BLE is derived from Bluetooth which was the winner of a series of technologies called PANs, for Personal Area Networks. Like your connection to the internet is Wide Area, and your home or office has a Local Area Network, this is even smaller. Originally, just to get radio from the phone in your pocket to devices on your head or other pockets, or people you stand next to. Discovery of this is by the radio itself, which can be set to broadcast and discovery modes. BLE is active, longer range (small buildings, street corners), and supports very dynamic data.
BLE connects the many little digital devices with intelligence and something to say. Over time, everything with power (your car, your thermostat, etc.) will be expected to get little computers, and little radios, so they can talk to each other and we can control them.
NFC gives a voice to the remaining vast, vast number of passive, stupid objects the world is filled with. No tube of toothpaste is ever going to have a power source, radio, and sensors to tell you how much is left. But it can have an NFC tag which makes it hyper toothpaste. It becomes connected to digital products and the internet.
You can conceive of an NFC reader in the medicine cabinet which knows what is in it, then that is part of the home automation and talks to a server somewhere via BLE to your phone to keep track of use rates and times, so it can tell if the kids brushed their teeth. Think of this as the real Internet of Things. NFC supports E2M, the Everything to Machine network of the future.
The moral of this is that BLE and NFC are not competitors. Regardless of the choices Apple makes, and what the tech press is making of it, the world needs both of these types of standards.