Will near field communication change the world?

Industry experts have been projecting the growing importance of near field communication due to its versatility and wide ranging application, but will it change the world?

Source:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/erwinboogert/ Although near field communication (NFC) has been around for almost a decade, it has been slowly gaining prominence, thanks to the shifting focus and use of smartphones worldwide. With a new wave of mobile devices coming to market, such as the launch of the new Apple iPad some time this week, and anticipated upgrades to the Android operating system over the next few days, manufacturers have been promising that 2012 will be a pivotal year for NFC. However, what exactly is it? How can it be used? And what are some of the benefits and issues associated with its use?

Also, feel free to share your views on NFC, and whether you believe it will change the world.

What is NFC?

NFC refers to a set of standards for mobile devices that allows them to communicate wirelessly by either touching or bringing them into close proximity (a few centimetres) with another NFC-enabled device. You might immediately think of barcodes, QR Codes and other electronic tags as using NFC, but unlike those examples communication is only one-way, i.e., between the tag and scanner. NFC allows two-way communications, which provides a more dynamic medium where more information can be transmitted.

What are some of the possible uses of NFC?

NRC N-Mark Trademark

NFC has a broad range of applications. When its capability, as a low speed, very short-range cnnection, is coupled with mobile devices ­– which are portable, highly personal and attached to an individual – the technology can be used in numerous ways, which generally fall into three main categories:

  • access control, e.g. to buildings, car parks and other locations, vehicles, equipment, services, etc.
  • payment facilitation, e.g. to pay for goods and services, such as bus and taxi fare, groceries, airline and concert tickets etc.
  • information sharing/social networking, e.g. to exchange business cards, to share images, articles and applications; to download information, etc.

The video clip below is a demonstration by Google late last year of NFC using Google Galaxy Nexus and Google Nexus S smartphones, soon after the launch of its latest operating system, Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich:

 This video clip is from Reuters focuses on mobile money, and using NFC for access control.  NFC is being used widely in some Southeast Asian countries to replace credit cards, but that application is not yet as ubiquitous in other developed countries:

 For developing countries around the world, including those in the Caribbean, NFC could be an important tool in mobile money systems ­– that allow payment of goods and services via mobile/cellular devices. Although many banks across the region offer mobile banking services, the unbanked – persons who do not have their own bank accounts – are still underserved. With the growing shift away from transacting in cash (most notably for security purposes), persons who do not have credit cards, or access to other forms of electronic payment, are frequently marginalised. NFC-capable mobile phones can offer another option for wider inclusion across all levels of a society, and could contribute to a narrowing of the digital divide.

Benefits and concerns

Manufacturers and industry pundits have been claiming that NFC will hit its stride this year. The NFC Forum, a widely recognised association that includes manufacturers, applications developers and financial services institutions, has identified the following benefits to consumers and businesses:

  • Intuitive: NFC interactions require no more than a simple touch
  • Versatile: NFC is ideally suited to the broadest range of industries, environments, and uses
  • Open and standards-based: The underlying layers of NFC technology follow universally implemented ISO, ECMA, and ETSI standards
  • Technology-enabling: NFC facilitates fast and simple setup of wireless technologies, such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, etc.)
  • Inherently secure: NFC transmissions are short range (from a touch to a few centimeters)
  • Interoperable: NFC works with existing contactless card technologies
  • Security-ready: NFC has built-in capabilities to support secure applications (Source: NFC Forum)

On the other hand, there are a few critical issues and concerns that must be addressed. The first and perhaps most worrying, are concerns related to security. Although NFC operates in very short ranges, a few centimetres, it is still possible to use a receiver detect transmissions. Second, and again being a form of wireless communication, it is also possible for NFC transmissions to be corrupted or obstructed, such as through signal jamming and other types of attacks. These security issues, while arguably slim, will need to be clearly addressed in order to allay fears among consumers. Finally, mainstream use of NFC in country – across a broad range of services and appications – will only be realised  when there has been buy-in and support from a number of stakeholders, such as infrastructure providers, content developers, vendors, and standards managers.Hence policy makers and special interest groups may have to take to lead to lobby stakeholders to implement and offer this feature.

Final thoughts

NFC appears to have the potential to significantly change how we view and use our mobile/cellular phones. It would be not just a communication and entertainment device, but also our credit and identification cards as well. Although these features would broaden the overall importance of our mobile phones, persons do have some hesitation about having one’s whole life attached to, and more importantly available on, such a device. Moreover, should you lose your phone, what might be the consequences? There are a number of security and privacy concerns that will need to be addressed, primarily on a country-by-country basis.

Do you have any concerns? What might they be?

Having said all of this, younger users in particular, are likely to be the ones driving the use of NFC. When this is coupled with the growing trend towards ultra-personalised services, as outlined in 7 insights on the future of technology and the Internet, NFC may become a key contributor to our changing world, due to its convenience and ease of use.

Image courtesy of Erwin Boogert, flickr and NFC Forum.

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