Apple patent award teases NFC alternative in iPhone's future

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office grants Apple new patents extending to "location-based service for iPhone."

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read
Fig. 1 shows two users holding their respective portable electronic devices in preparation for data transfer between them.

As of yet, no Apple device has included near field communications technology. But the on-and-off rumor is on again.

NFC is a short range, secure wireless technology that can be used to transfer data from one device to another. So far it's been used in smartphones to do things like transfer media, as well as let users pay for things by tapping their smartphone onto a terminal, which reads a user's credit card information.

As the announcement of the iPhone 5 neared, and even with the iPhone 4S before it, several rumors floated about the possibility that the new device would include hardware to enable NFC-based mobile payments. It was not to be. But now the United States Patent and Trademark Office has granted Apple a patent for an NFC alternative technology covering the "method and apparatus for triggering network device discovery."

The filings were first reported by Patently Apple.

The inventors of the patent for an NFC alternative technology, which was filed in 2009, are Patrick S. Piemonte, Ronald K. Huang, and Parin Patel.

We contacted Apple for comment and will update this post when more information becomes available.

Fig. 2 is a block diagram of functional components of a portable device relevant to a network device discovery process.

Apple's public stance on NFC so far has been limited. When the iPhone 5 debuted on September 12, Apple VP Phil Schiller said that Apple's Passbook feature, which can store items like boarding passes or loyalty cards, satisfied customer need just as well. In an interview with AllThingsD, he said it was not clear that NFC offered a solution to any current problem.

The filing, titled "Method and apparatus for triggering network device discovery," offers a detailed explanation of the invention, which involves a a method for network device discovery monitoring a compass output in a portable electronic device.

This is not the first patent to mention use of NFC technology, and its possible integration with a payment system. In August, Apple received a patent for "Motion based payment confirmation," which detailed several ways to help the user confirm that a mobile transaction had actually been completed from a mobile device like an iPhone or iPod.

Here's a snippet: (Warning: It's not for the fainthearted.)

As the portable device and an external device come closer to each other, a magnetic field signature is computed based on the monitored compass output. A determination is then made as to whether the computed signature can be associated with or implies that a previously defined type of electronic device (with which a network device discovery process can be conducted) is in close proximity. In other words, as the two devices come closer to each other, their respective magnetic characteristics cause the compass output to change in a way that implies that a network device discovery process should be initiated between the two devices. The detected change in the compass output can be compared to one or more previously stored compass output patterns (magnetic field signatures). Each of these previous patterns may have been determined empirically or otherwise, to be the magnetic profile of a given type of external device that has come into proximity. A previous compass output pattern that best matches the newly detected compass output pattern is selected, and the device identification type or protocol information of the matching pattern is then used to perform a network device discovery process (using other signaling mechanisms). For example, if the detected compass output pattern matches that of a typical smart phone, then a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth setup protocol is initiated in the portable device.

Using the compass output in this manner to in effect prescreen another device, for purposes of establishing a communications connection whose setup is particularly involved or lengthy, may help make more efficient use of time and portable device resources. For instance, there is less power consumption and less network bandwidth consumption by the portable device, because the relatively complex Wi-Fi or Bluetooth setup process may be kept suspended until needed. In addition, the relatively fast trigger provided by monitoring compass output (and comparing to previously stored patterns) can give an early start to a relatively lengthy set up protocol (such as that of Bluetooth) which includes both device search and service discovery processes. This helps avoid having to wait for a timer to expire before starting to poll or search for an external device.

Fig. 3 shows an example data structure in the interference signature storage of the portable device.

Fig. 4 is a block diagram of an electronic device having a magnetic field signature generator.