Nearly Time for Near-Field Communication

By Mark Roberti

Google and Apple seem to be embracing NFC RFID technology as they race to acquire more smart-phone customers.


At the Web 2.0 Summit, held last week in San Francisco, Google‘s CEO, Eric Schmidt, said the next version of Android‘s mobile-phone operating system, dubbed Gingerbread 2.3, will support Near-Field Communication (NFC), a type of high-frequency (HF) radio frequency identification technology that enables device-to-device data transfers, as well as payments and other applications. Apple has reportedly filed a number of RFID patents, and it appears the two biggest players in the smart-phone market are racing to be the first to incorporate RFID into their cell-phone platforms.

Is this significant? Potentially, it could be very important for brand owners and their marketers, and it could have an impact on the public’s view of RFID.

NFC technology allows an RFID interrogator to both read tags and act like a tag, so that it can be read. There have been a number of NFC trials worldwide. Consumers, for example, were able to hold their NFC-enabled phones close to a movie poster with an NFC transponder, and thereby download information about the movie. It is also possible to purchase movie tickets on an NFC-enabled mobile phone, and then swipe the phone over an NFC-enabled turnstile at the theater to enter. Folks in Japan have been doing this for several years.

Schmidt seemed to indicate that NFC support would primarily enable transactions to be conducted using the phone. He told one interviewer that NFC phones “could replace credit cards.”

Personally, I think there’s a lot of potential beyond just payments. NFC enables a user to transfer data between phones at short range. So, for instance, every time I buy a beer at a local pub, the pub’s owner could transfer loyalty points to my account. I could then transfer some of those points to a friend going to the pub without me. There’s also the potential to create games that would allow people to find things in the real world, transfer “money” to other players they meet and so forth. I’m sure that application developers will come up with many creative ways to use NFC technology.

Nokia has reported that all of its phones will have NFC capabilities beginning next year. If Android phones and iPhones also include NFC technology, it’s likely we’ll reach a critical mass at which applications will be developed and companies will begin to discover ways to engage consumers with the technology.

In addition, cell-phone carriers AT&T Mobility, T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless have launched a joint venture, known as ISIS, to develop a single software platform that consumers and retailers can use to enable mobile payments via NFC (see Mobile Carriers Launch Venture to Aid Adoption of NFC in Phones).

Unfortunately, NFC phones can not read the high-frequency and ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags being used on some consumer products, which means you won’t be able to, say, read the tag on a pair of jeans at Wal-Mart and access additional information about those pants. So I don’t see NFC jump-starting the use of RFID throughout the retail industry, though phones could one day support both UHF and NFC readers.

But the widespread use of NFC could change people’s perception of RFID. If NFC is perceived as something convenient, cool and fun, and if people understand that it is a form of RFID, then some of the fear of tracking that people currently have regarding the technology would likely dissipate—and that could be the biggest benefit to both RFID providers and end users.

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 or the Editor’s Note archive.