iPhone 5 aside, what is NFC? (FAQ)

Whether NFC lands on the iPhone 5 or not, it's a technology that's appearing on a lot of high-profile devices.

Maybe Apple hasn't added NFC to its devices yet, but Google has -- the Nexus 7 tablet being a prime example.
Maybe Apple hasn't added NFC to its devices yet, but Google has -- the Nexus 7 tablet being a prime example. Google

Though it's increasingly less certain that near field communication (NFC) will appear in the iPhone 5, it's a technology that's built into a lot of high-profile products already. So, what is it exactly? And how relevant is it today?

What is NFC?
NFC is a short-range wireless connectivity technology that uses magnetic-field induction to enable communication between electronic devices in close proximity. (Faraday's law: any change in the magnetic environment of a coil of wire will cause a voltage to be induced in the coil.)

NFC can operate in three modes, according to an NFC whitepaper:

  • Smart tag: In this case, the user touches, for example, a mobile phone against an NFC tag, which provides a small amount of information to the device. This could be used for getting information about a product in store or for downloading information about medication.
  • Peer-to-peer: Sharing contacts, Web pages, or a YouTube video with another NFC-capable phone is a common example. Another is using NFC to establish another wireless connection method, such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. For example, when you need to print out photos taken with a digital camera. By touching the device to an NFC-enabled printer, a Bluetooth connection is established to transmit the digital photos to the printer.
  • Payment: Payment and ticketing applications were one of the drivers for the creation of the NFC standard, according to NFC-Forum.org. Basically, a quick tap and the transaction is completed. The goal -- when the infrastructure and security is in place and the dust settles from skirmishes about standards -- is to have NFC-enabled devices used as widely as credit cards are today.

What high-profile devices are out there today with NFC?
It's a pretty long list but some of the more notable devices are the Google Nexus S, Google Nexus 7 tablet, HTC One X, Motorola Droid Razr (not advertised but included), Samsung Galaxy Note, and Samsung Galaxy S2/S3. And there's even a pretty high-profile laptop out there with NFC, HP's Envy 14 Spectre ultrabook.

So, how widely used is NFC today?
It's the proverbial chicken-and-egg problem. If it's not on your device (or you don't use it even if it is), then retailers have less incentive to add terminals. Market researcher Gartner places NFC payment between the "Peak of Inflated Expectations" and the "Trough of Disillusionment" in its annual Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies. NFC payments are still seen as being 5 to 10 years away.

But all the big credit card players are trying to implement NFC, to one degree or another. That includes Visa, Mastercard, and American Express. And throw in all of the major mobile players too: AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile USA, and Sprint. And Google too, with its Google Wallet.

That said, NFC is caught in the usual standards battles, and it could take years to decide a winner and/or deploy an infrastructure that supports multiple standards.

Examples of NFC applications.
Examples of NFC applications. NFC-Forum.org
About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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