We are the cherry on the NFC cake

I love Apple, at least for one thing. Even a rumor on an Apple product yields more articles on a technology than several real product announcements from other vendors. That’s the case for the NFC rumor. There are plenty of articles, including one on The Register that compares Apple to other NFC vendors and recalls that despite years of talk, NFC remains a technology on trial.

Yet, Apple thinks about embracing the technology. The Register, in the article, states that including NFC is a real step in the unknown, more than what Apple did before. Here, I don’t completely agree. In fact, it depends on what part of NFC they push forward. And here, Apple has plenty of ways to do things better than Nokia or others.

In many trials, the emphasis has been put on card emulation applications, in which a NFC phone replaces a payment card or a public transportation token, dematerialized into a NFC application, on some secure element bundled with the phone. This sounds very exciting for card people, but I am not sure how compelling such closed applications are to the general public, or at least, to the technophile crowd.

However, NFC also includes the ability to read and write tags, as well as the ability to perform peer-to-peer transactions. Although this has not been the main focus of NFC trials so far, it opens the door to many new applications. Apple filed two patents around RFID: one is an application, in which each network device is identified by a RFID tag, and inserted in a local network by presenting the tag to a reader included in the router (or maybe, on a NFC phone). The other one is about mixing a touch device and a RFID reader.

With its Application Store, Apple has the power to distribute applications that actually make innovative use of RFIDs. If Apple gets some inspiration from Nano:ztag or other fun devices, maybe that some of these applications can be really useful. And in addition, there are no deployment issues, like the ones that plague the card emulation NFC applications (Who owns the secure element? Who pays who?).

So, to make things short, although the smart card industry tends to think that NFC is a smart card technology, there are good chances that the part of NFC that in which the value really is is the RFID reader, because it enables innovative applications, without complex deployment schemes. In that vision, card emulation is not useless, it just holds more value. It is the cherry on the RFID cake: when NFC devices will be pervasive, and when deployment models will be clarified, this is quite likely to be a successful application of NFC.

But once again, not necessarily the application that makes NFC a success.

2 Comments

  • I also thought that the article in The Register sub-estimated the current status of NFC. It is not a risk shot for Apple, due to some of the reasons mentioned there: the popularity of iproducts, the power of apple and its presence in most of part of the chain (offering API, distribution and payment channels and being responsible for the security).

    In fact when reading the article I got more and more convinced that Apple can possibly add the NFC in their devices and spread its usage with some great applications.

    I am curious to see an official statement about the topic.

  • The Register (a great website IMHO) has always been kind of cold toward anything smartcard-related so I’m not surprised. The example with the Oyster Card application running on the iPhone nicely demonstrates their ignorance of the technical issues. But we should admit that NFC has been quite long in the making, and some of their comments are quite accurate (i.e. the NFC technology works but is really difficult to deploy in the cold, real world).

    I’m still not convinced: NFC would be very useful for some people (ex: people living in big cities with contactless transportation cards) but totally useless to anyone else. Mobile phone manufacturers deal with this issue by releasing a slew of models every year, with NFC included in only a few of them. Apple cannot do that: either everyone gets it or no one does.

    Now I’m thinking, what up with PayPass in the US these days? Could this provide some kind of a killer app?

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