Mobile NFC today and in the future

For those who aren’t sure, NFC is a contactless radio technology that can transmit data between two devices within four centimetres of each other.  By tapping an NFC enabled item against a NFC terminal, people can easily pay for items, access information, validate tickets, redeem vouchers, collect loyalty points etc. without having to faff with scanning or inputting codes.

Though we’re now seeing more use of NFC beyond the initial bank owned initiatives, with the likes of McDonald’s, Subway, Starbucks, Boots and Marks & Spencer’s coming onboard, we’re yet to see mobile phone based NFC move into mass usage.

“Next year” has been “The year” for mobile NFC to take off for what feels like a good number of years now, and although it has obviously started to gain some traction it just hasn’t been able to permeate into the mainstream consciousness.  We have Oyster cards and we have contactless bank cards, but It’s still not one of the must have features that people ask for when choosing a mobile phone… and that’s despite the first mobile phone with built in NFC existing way back in 2007 (the Nokia 6131).

A lot of us expected Apple to introduce NFC into their phones this time round, and that as a result the demand for NFC based offerings would explode.  Apple however had other ideas, and it seems as a result mobile NFC initiatives have slowed down.

Or have they?  Maybe we actually are finally on the tipping point when it comes to mobile based NFC.  According to Berg Insight, global sales of NFC enabled handsets in 2012 rose 300% to 140 million units, and they expect one billion NFC handsets to be shipped in 2017.  In addition availability and acceptability of mobile wallets (digital containers that sit on your mobile device grouping together and controlling mobile commerce services like payment and loyalty cards, tickets, vouchers etc.) is increasing, with the likes of Orange, O2 and Google providing their own solutions.  The only thing that could stifle this march could be too many stakeholders getting involved, all wanting a cut of the pie.  The hope though, is that a standardised approach to SIM-based NFC could help to combat this (see the GSMA link at the end of this post).

So, what else can we do with this technology?  Contactless payments may be the poster child for mobile NFC, but it’s not the only use for it.  The technology can augment and create product and service streams beyond those of contactless payments.  Taking a look at the main modes of operation provided by Android NFC will give you an idea of the potential scope on offer:

  • Reader/writer mode – allows an NFC device to read and/or write passive NFC tags and stickers.
  • P2P mode – allows an NFC device to exchange data with another NFC device through use of Android Beam.
  • Card emulation mode – allows an NFC device to act as an NFC card that can then be accessed by an external NFC reader, such as the NFC point-of-sale terminals used in contactless payments.

Firstly, there are a number of opportunities within business to leverage the capabilities of mobile NFC.  Smartphones as identity cards and authentication management solutions (for buildings, car parking, monitoring attendance etc.), for internal credit/pay systems and as remotes for interfacing with devices in presentation suites/meeting rooms, are some of the applications that businesses can explore.

The use of mobile NFC for public services, such as the travel services right here in London for example, would seems ideal if not for the multiple stakeholder concerns expressed above.  Paying for travel using your mobile phone (something that is generally always with you) seems to be one fit that plays right into the commuter convenience model.  It could feasibly go beyond this to facilitate access to other public services as well, if the Government felt so inclined.  If you travel by bus in London you may have seen NFC touch points on bus stops that allow you to check route times and service conditions right on your phone.  The French “Cityzi” service shows the way forward, allowing commuters in some locations quick entry to train stations by scanning handhelds, and providing maps and other useful information via NFC tags like those on our bus stops.  San Francisco has NFC compatible parking meters, and Sydney has NFC tags for tourists finding their way around The Rocks.

NFC also has a place in the retail shopping experience.  A Forrester report on the topic highlights the potential for providing personalised feedback on products when scanning a tag on the display shelf (via an app provided by the store/shopping centre).  The customer provides a personal profile (to assist with context and relevancy) that interacts with information accessed through NFC, and in addition the customer could be offered vouchers, promotions, directions to related items (“people who bought this also bought…”) etc.  Similar approaches could be used at festivals, concerts, shows, museums etc. providing quick access to information, special offers or fast track purchasing of items real or digital.

When it comes to marketing there are plenty of opportunities for NFC enabled mobiles to interact with touch points to create an immersive experience.  Adverts, posters and similar can all utilise NFC to provide access to additional info about products, promotions and related items.  It can be used at events such as festivals and concerts to allow visitors to check in on social networks and quickly “like” groups or supporting acts.  It’s easy to envisage this kind of use for other social activities and how it can be extended to gamification and achievement collecting.

Mobile NFC can also be used for the easy transfer of data between devices: facilitating interactions and gaming at social events, collaboration between colleagues within the workspace and promotion of rapid knowledge share between delegates at conferences.  Android Beam, which was introduced in Android 4.0, uses NFC to enable the transfer of just about any kind of data you can imagine: files, links to sites and apps, videos, maps and so on.  There is a lot of potential uses for this alone and it’s reasonably straight forward to enable Android Beam in an app using the usual activity intent model to manage the messages being passed between devices.  The app beaming the data must be the foreground/active app on the device and the phone/tablet receiving the data must not be locked. When in close enough contact with each other, the beaming device displays the “Touch to Beam” call to action and the user can choose to beam the data to the receiver to not.

With all these potential uses and the ever increasing number of NFC enabled phones and tablets available, it can only be a matter of time before mobile NFC finally gains greater traction in our lives.  The question of course is, once we start using this technology for all of the above and more, how do we handle the loss of a phone as it’s importance increases?  That importance is not just a matter of concern for the owner of the device either, but for the businesses and organisations that employ those owners.  People will effectively be walking around in the wild with the keys to the bank in their pockets.  In the past a pass card would most likely stay at home when you’re away from work, but a phone goes with you to the cinema, the pub, an amusement park etc.  Potential for loss becomes greater.  This is something that Mobile Device Management (MDM) is engaged in answering as bring your own device (BYOD) policies pick up pace in business, but that’s something we can look into another time.

Check out this GSMA overview and related pages for more information on the arguments for NFC, and check out this Forrester’s report on NFC for further info on the points raised above.

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2 thoughts on “Mobile NFC today and in the future

  1. Pingback: 4G and advertising, Google Play SEO recommendations, Mobile NFC and APIs to make data mobile | New Technology Development Team Blog

  2. Pingback: What does 2015 hold in store for mobile? | rickynealeuk

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