Close Encounters

A friend of mine recently asked me what all the hullaballoo surrounding NFC was. This friend, I believe, represents a perspective that a great deal of folks share.

  1. What is it?
  2. Why should I care?

These two questions are critical in determining whether or not any technology is really going to catch on with the mainstream crowd.

The answer to the first question is pretty technical, but I’ll break it down as much as I can. NFC is a technology that enables very short range communication between devices. One device reads data, the other stores it for access by a reader. The storage device is tiny, we’re talking minuscule. The wires that act as antennae for this thing are about as thick as a human hair, and are typically wound up to increase their visibility by the reader devices.

The communication part isn’t that interesting, it’s how a device’s NFC technology interprets these NFC signals that’s really interesting.

The overwhelming majority of the discussions that I’ve seen regarding NFC center around using a phone or tablet as a mobile wallet, tying credit cards, loyalty cards, transit cards, and a number of other possible wallet-fattening pieces of plastic to said gadget. Proponents of the technology have long pointed to Japan and Europe, where people have been using their cell phones as subway passes (and, yes, credit cards, etc.) for years. The countries which have seen good NFC adoption naturally have relatively tech-savvy customers, but they also sport solid infrastructure to support the rollout.

It’s this specific component of the NFC landscape that’s been a large question mark for so long in America. There are, of course, businesses that have adopted NFC as a part of normal business (Jamba Juice, Mobil, McDonald’s, to name a few). Their card readers are compatible with credit and debit cards sporting certain logos that have those embedded chips.

However, I believe that the discussion of nationwide payment systems employing NFC is a red herring. In fact, I think it’s the most impractical use of the technology that I can think of right now. While it would be neat to wave my phone at a cash register and finish my transaction that much faster (without having to break my IM conversation to pay, mind you), the true usefulness of NFC tech comes in the form of self-created NFC “tags”, much like what Google has included with their Nexus 7 tablet, and that Samsung is touting as a feature of their Galaxy S III.

The draw here is that a user can create “actions” and bind them to these little stick-on “tags”, which they can then use to automate certain actions on their device. For example, a user could set a custom action script that would switch the device’s Bluetooth on or off (depending on current state), put it in pairing mode, and open the Bluetooth settings page to look for other devices. The user could then stick this tag to the back of his or her Bluetooth keyboard, and, by tapping the device against that tag, easily set up pairing between that device and the keyboard, saving the user the frustration of having to manually re-pair a device and the keyboard when switching between two or three devices. Another possible scenario could see restaurants placing NFC tags on tables that users could tap to toggle their phones to “silent” mode. When users are finished with their meal, they would simply tap the tag again to toggle the phone back to its previous settings. A user could check into a venue on foursquare or Facebook, join his or her home or work wi-fi network, or launch certain apps when he or she taps the tag that he or she has stuck on his or her front door.

The point is that NFC, with a little ingenuity, can automate repetitive tasks or common actions that are tied to very specific places. Sometimes GeoFences aren’t enough to allow users that granular control over their location and/or actions. Airplanes could have NFC tags located at the main entrance that put the phone in, well, airplane mode. It would be easy for travelers simply to tap the device against the tag and ease in for takeoff.

Apple cites the inclusion of the Passbook app as perfectly adequate for most consumers. What Apple is referring to, in this case, is the very specific use case of using the iPhone as a credit card or payment device. To their credit, I believe they’re right. The average American doesn’t want to deal with the steps necessary to link a device to a credit card or other account.

But what about all the other uses? I guess we’ll just have to wait until next year.

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