Experimenting NFC, things

Following my little NFC rants, I have kept on experimenting with Android NFC applications and reading about the Internet of Things (experimenting remains harder, here). The combination is trendy these days, as this week will see the launch of a new initiative in France with the French chapter of ACM SIGOPS (in French). I won’t be there, sadly, but I hope to get some feedback from this event.

So, about the Internet of Things, as suggested by @tcarlyle, I looked at Everythng. I really liked it, and their basic engine is very interesting. What they are doing in the social area is interesting, as they take a fresh look at advertising (with real interaction). Their offer is definitely worth looking at if you want to do something with objects. And the fact that they are looking in parallel at smart and “dumb” objects makes their initiative even more appealing.

However, I still get the feeling that there is a strong interest in going one step further, really exploring VRM here. For instance, on approach like Onecub, which helps users organize and manage their incoming e-mails from retailers and service providers, sounds really interesting. This kind of engine, connected to Everythng’s “thing” engine, could efficiently link the Internet of People with the Internet of Things, because we certainly don’t want to get unfiltered messages from all the things we know (and their makers/vendors/distributors). By the way, @Onecub, I would love to take a look at your private beta.

In the end, it looks more and more that some experimentation will be possible without necessarily having to go through too much of a backend effort, building on these upcoming technologies. Which brings me to the implementation side, with NFC. I have tried a few applications that perform actions when scanning tags.

The first one I tried was Tagstand’s NFC Tag Launcher. This application seems to work nicely, but it requires to use their own tags (they supposedly ship some free, but only in the US). I did try it anyway, because their application can also perform some actions when connecting to a Bluetooth device or to a Wifi network. That’s actually interesting, as such events can happen when arriving in the car or at home. For me, turning my phone’s loud ringtone on automatically when I get home is useful.

The second one I tried was NFC ReTAG Free. This app does about the same thing as the previous one, but it can do it with any NFC tag, including my old conference badges (and I have enough of these to organize quite a few experiments). This application works fine, and I have been able to associate some behavior to old badges. Sadly, in practice, the app is made less interesting by Android’s design choices when several NFC applications are available. Like in other cases, a chooser is displayed, that allows me to choose in a single click between the various tag-reading applications. However, this chooser does not include an option that allows me to make a permanent choice: a chooser is displayed every time.

If I try to second guess Google’s intentions, I would say that they simply want to avoid applications that would hijack all NFC interactions. However, Google also describes the main value of NFC as the streamlining of the interaction: you read a tag, and you immediately get what you want. In that particular case, this value falls as a collateral damage to another policy.

If we dig a bit deeper, this shows that the preferred model for Android NFC is a closed model, in which an application is associated to a set of tags, issued by the same company. In that case, they will use private NDEF content, which guarantees them that their tags will trigger their applications. Open models, in which a tag can be used freely by several applications (letting a user select a preferred app) is more difficult. I still believe that such applications are very promising for NFC, in particular in publc spaces, but the interaction may not be as fluid, at least to start with.

Now that the Layar app is reading QR-codes, we can see how similar applications may rapidly become the front-end to our smartphones, and NFC tags will be losing some of their competitive advantage if they can’t trigger this app automatically. Let’s hope that this feature will keep evolve in future releases of Android.

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