NFC: The Ultimate Guide

Of all the mobile technologies that have arisen in recent years, near field communication (NFC) has shown by far the most widespread real world potential. Initially developed by NokiaSony and Philips (all of whom formed the NFC Forum in 2004), the contactless technology has steadily built up advocates across the globe and is beginning to be integrated across several platforms, from mobile wallets to hotel door keys.

Although NFC has been adopted widely in Japan, the USA and parts of Europe, we have yet to really see it take off in the UK. However, this may all be set to change with carriers, manufacturers and other partners starting to announce that they will begin to utilise NFC and exploit its capabilities.

In this feature we’ll take a look at the history of NFC, how it works and the major developments within the technology. We’ll then explore how it has been utilised across the world and where we are likely to see NFC used in the future.

The Birth Of Near Field Communication

NFC was built upon the technology used in radio-frequency identification (RFID) and initially developed in 2004. This led to the creation of the NFC Forum, a non-profit industry association that set out to oversee standards-based specifications and educate the global market about NFC technology. That body now stands at over 150 global member companies.

Nokia were the first to release an NFC-enabled handset in 2006, with the Nokia 6131. However, despite a number of exciting initiatives, the phone-buying public was underwhelmed. The fact that big business had not noticed NFC’s potential was a key factor in it faltering early on. Without large investment from trusted partners, the technology was never likely to be widely rolled-out.

The announcement of Google Wallet in early 2011 was a key turning point, with major backing from high profile companies including Subway, Mastercard and Citibank providing much-needed credence to the platform. The exposure provided by Google and the inclusion of NFC capabilities in the high profile Samsung Galaxy Nexus handset has seen consumers and businesses alike begin to take the concept of NFC more seriously.

The Japanese market has seen NFC gain traction to a higher degree than the US, with contactless systems such as Mobile FeliCa becoming popular alongside other consumer services such as Credit Saison and Orient Corporation. Another recent advancement has come in the form of All Nippon Airways adoption of NFC at its check-in desks, utilising the tech to provide travellers with an all-in-one ticket and boarding pass, sent directly to their phone.

The Tech Behind The Touch

With RFID acting as a catalyst and the popularity of MasterCard’s Paypass in the USA providing a litmus test with the public, the creation of NFC seemed a natural progression. The premise of the technology at its most basic is an RFID microchip that adds computer processing power to increase functionality and therefore allowing interaction with the chip itself.

Similarities can be drawn with Bluetooth as both are short-communication technologies, however, NFC allows for a faster connection and does not require pairing in order to begin working (making it ideal for quick exchanges). From here the leap to mobile wallets and phone-based ticketing options is an easy one to make.

Three distinct modes are possible for NFC within the world of mobile:

  1. Reader Mode – This will allow the device to pick up static information embedded in stickers/posters/tags. Examples include gig posters embedded with venue and ticketing details.
  2. Card Emulation Mode – Fairly self-explanatory, this means the NFC-enabled handset contains credit/debit card information that can be passed to a vendor using a contactless pay infrastructure.
  3. Peer To Peer Mode – By tapping two NFC-equipped devices together, users can share information, media and even multiplayer gaming opportunities.

Recent Major Developments

As previously touched on, Japan has seen the most solid advances in NFC across several different platforms. Aside from mobile payments and airline check-in, the following uses have been implemented to varying degrees of success:

  • Mobile bus/train passes
  • Coupon redemption
  • Social network check-in
  • Tag-equipped movie posters
  • In-car services
  • Electronic drivers licenses

Progress has been much slower in the UK though, with only very limited trials taking place. However, it does seem that manufacturers and carriers are starting to adopt the technology. O2 has announced large-scale testing at several sites throughout London and handsets such as the Sony Xperia S are heavily marketed around their NFC credentials with a major focus on  Sony’s Smart Tags (which can be user-assigned for different NFC purposes).

Other key handsets featuring NFC include:

The Future

From discussions at CES and MWC 2012, it seems that going forward, virtually all new smartphones will feature NFC as standard and carriers are now demanding the technology as a minimum requirement in new devices. Additionally, consumers are starting to become aware of the advantages of services such as Google Wallet as a convenient way to simplify transactions.

The London Olympics are having a huge influence on communication technologies in the UK and as such NFC is set to take centre stage (with the Samsung/Visa PayWave app featuring heavily) as a way to keep queues moving and users informed. Additionally, with the infrastructure already in place for touch technology with the Oyster Card system used across the city’s public transport network, the leap would not be too great to convert to a mobile-based system.

Similarly, Mastercard Paypass has been rolled out to several large retailers (including McDonalds and Subway) and again this technology can be easily adopted by NFC, particularly when Google Wallet begins to infiltrate the public consciousness and uptake increases.

The largest barrier for the public is currently the apprehension over the security measures in place within NFC, with many people lacking trust in over the air transactions. However, with major players such as Visa, Mastercard, Google and O2 showing faith in the platform, it seems highly likely that NFC will become a staple part of everyday life in the very near future.

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