Apple Embraces NFC (Finally)

By Mark Roberti

At its recent developer's conference, the iPhone maker announced that the Near Field Communication reader in its handsets will be open to apps other than Apply Pay, which should give a big boost to the technology.

For the past few years, we've been using QR codes at our annual RFID Journal LIVE! conference and exhibition. Each exhibitor receives a unique QR code, which attendees can then scan to win prizes and track each booth they visit.

Of course, we get snickers from people who point out that an RFID event should use radio frequency identification, not QR codes. But if we employed Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, a form of passive high-frequency (HF) RFID, no one with an Apple iPhone would be able to participate. That's because the NFC reader built into iPhones since the release of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus has only been used by Apple Pay. Apple did not let other apps take advantage of the NFC reader in the phones—until now.

At its recent developer conference in San Jose, Calif., the company announced it was opening the NFC reader in the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus for use by other apps. Apple didn't offer much detail publicly at the conference, but subsequently posted this on the developer's area of its website:

Your app can read tags to give users more information about their physical environment and the real-world objects in it. For example, your app might give users information about products they find in a store or exhibits they visit in a museum.

Using Core NFC, you can read Near Field Communication (NFC) tags of types 1 through 5 that contain data in the NFC Data Exchange Format (NDEF). To read a tag, your app creates an NFC NDEF reader session and provides a delegate. A running reader session polls for NFC tags and calls the delegate when it finds tags that contain NDEF messages, passing the messages to the delegate. The delegate can read the messages and handle conditions that can cause a session to become invalid.

The developer community took to Twitter to express excitement about being able to take advantage of the NFC reader in newer iPhones. "Thank you @Apple for FINALLY opening up #NFC support to devs! Let the flood gates of creativity open...So excited!" said a typical post.

This is certainly good news for the RFID industry in general. It's likely we'll see NFC used more widely for pairing phones with Bluetooth devices and other interesting applications (the first iPhone apps to take advantage of NFC will likely start appearing toward the end of this year, when iOS 11 is released).

It's likely that NFC will be used in new and innovative ways by brands looking to connect with customers. I also believe NFC might be utilized to enable phones to send commands to home appliances, thermostats and other devices. That's because it's possible to embed an NFC chip with input and output ports into devices. Manufacturers could eliminate, or greatly simplify, the controls on devices and develop apps that enable you to control your smart devices via your phone.

It remains to be seen how extensively manufacturers and brand owners will use Near Field Communication. But one enormous impediment—the fact that iPhone owners couldn't utilize NFC-enabled devices—is now gone.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.