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Bluetooth LE in Apple TV shows NFC sidestep

An Apple TV "touch-to-set-up" option using Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) shows that Apple has well and truly moved beyond ever adding near-field communication (NFC) to the iPhone.

An Apple TV "touch-to-set-up" option using Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) shows that Apple has well and truly moved beyond ever adding near-field communication (NFC) to the iPhone.

Tap your iPhone to the Apple TV? Like NFC without the actual NFC. (Credit: Apple)

Apple has added a new set-up feature to Apple TV that makes the experience look an awful lot like an NFC "tap-to-connect" experience. On any third-generation Apple TV, you can now set up by tapping your iPhone against the TV for your first iTunes sign-in. It will then pass all your details to the Apple TV. No fussing about with the Apple TV remote to tap out passwords and user details one letter at a time.

Between devices, NFC is typically acting as a first step in a simplified Bluetooth pairing process. So this Bluetooth LE method is skipping the NFC middleman, while keeping things just as simple.

NFC still holds advantages, with unpowered tokens that can trigger interactions or device state changes — both Samsung and Sony offer special tiles and tokens to use in this way.

The Bluetooth LE advantage is that it removes the need for a direct contact interaction. Instead, an interaction can be initiated within a radius of up to 50 metres. The low-power requirement also means that iBeacons can be implemented as small stand-alone devices that can run up to two years on a watch battery.

Apple has supported Bluetooth 4.0 since the iPhone 4S, but this new process seems to have arrived thanks to the new "iBeacon" system in iOS 7. One of the less-discussed features of iOS 7, iBeacons are Bluetooth LE transmitters that can cheaply create zones of presence for iOS 7 devices to interact with.

PayPal has recently announced its Beacon system that it aims to roll out in stores around the world, which operates on the same Bluetooth LE system as Apple's iBeacon. PayPal does suggest its own system will not directly be an iBeacon service, stating its own service is "better than" iBeacon's because it's available cross-platform. It also suggests that the PayPal service has better privacy policies than iBeacon.

Google has added Bluetooth LE support for the first time in Android 4.3. That's a good sign that everyone will get any benefits of an iBeacon-led shift in in-store digital commerce. iBeacon vendors are already pointing to cross-platform software development kits (SDKs) to ensure non-iPhone users can also be part of what's coming.

NFC has had three years in the wild but never quite gained traction in the store payment landscape. With these early signs of Apple's new iBeacon efforts, with Bluetooth LE and PayPal also joining the Bluetooth LE party, the true contactless payment revolution may be on its way in 2014.