What do Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone handsets have that Apple’s iPhone doesn’t? One of the glaring differences is Apple’s refusal to integrate Near Field Communication (NFC). The big reveal on Tuesday of two new iPhone models signals the Cupertino tech giant’s unwillingness to adopt the platform – but why?
First, what exactly is NFC and how does an average smartphone user benefit from it?
“NFC is a short-range, low-power communications protocol between two devices,” explained PopSci. “One device, the initiator, uses magnetic induction to create a radio-wave field that the target can detect and access, allowing small amounts of data to be transferred wirelessly over a relatively short distance … NFC is two-way, allowing your NFC-enabled gadget to both send and receive information.”
PopSci continued: “Compared to other wireless protocols like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, NFC is exceedingly slow, with a maximum data transfer speed of 0.424 Mbps, less than a quarter that of Bluetooth. But NFC has several key advantages: It consumes a mere 15 mA of power, it has the possibility for greater security, and it forgoes the involved ‘pairing’ process of Bluetooth entirely, requiring nothing more than a tap.”
Smartphones with embedded NFC chips can essentially be used as debit or credit cards, with payments being made by simply tapping a payment terminal – but the usefulness of NFC extends beyond making a purchase. NFC could also turn your smartphone into a commuter pass, a hotel keycard, a membership card, and a virtual point card for your favorite shopping destination. At the very least, it has real potential to thin out a bulging wallet.
Additionally, NFC allows you to share information with nearby devices or “passive tags” (chips with embedded data) that support the technology – photos, contact information, documents, and URLs, for example. Pairing is another benefit of NFC – tap your phone against a Wi-Fi router to join the network, or tap a pair of wireless headphones to connect them do your device. The possibilities are seemingly endless.
Android devices were the first to embrace NFC. All of the platform’s current flagships – Samsung’s Galaxy S4 and Note 3, Sony’s Xperia Z and Z1, the HTC One, the LG G2, and the Moto X all include NFC chips. Even Blackverry’s Z10 and Q10, as well as Nokia’s Windows Phone 8-powered Lumia 1020 and 925 support the technology. Why won’t Apple give NFC a chance?
“Apple's decision is clearly the result of a long-term competitive strategy based on a projection of how the mobile payments business will evolve,” ComputerWorld reported. “Touch ID (Apple’s new home-button-integrated fingerprint scanner) will help push purchases to Apple's content stores.”
“Apple has decided that fingers are better than near field radios for [ensuring that] transactions are secure,” said Carl Howe, an analyst at Yankee Group, told ComputerWorld. “If nothing else, consumers will understand fingerprints better.”
Another analyst added: “I think NFC mobile wallet is a dead letter outside of Japan. It's just not going to happen. I think businesses will simply convert to bar-code scanners that can read [QR codes on] smartphones. Or perhaps a Wi-Fi-based solution will be adopted.”
Apple already uses a system called Passbook that works by scanning QR codes (the square barcodes often seen on advertisements and in magazines). This allows people to use their iPhone or iPad as a boarding pass – but it doesn’t allow tap-to-pay or other features made possible by NFC.
According to a study by the Payments Innovation Jury, more than half of an anonymous group of 25 payment industry leaders (think PayPal, Western Union) agreed that digital wallets would replace credit and debit cards. However, the jury questioned consumer desire to adopt the platform – pointing out that while NFC is wildly popular in Asia, Europe lags behind.
“The most notable thing missing in the 5S is – still – NFC, which is unfortunate for anyone looking to start taking advantage of features like Google Wallet. Apple seems to be waiting a long, long time to jump on that NFC train, so hopefully we'll see it the next time around,” wrote Gizmodo.
A recently published patent application may ignite hopes that the next iPhone – likely to be called the iPhone 6 – will finally adopt NFC.
“The ‘Electronic device with shared near field communications and sensor structures’ patent application, filed in February 2013, describes a sensor built into the home button of a mobile phone that combines both fingerprint biometrics and NFC functionality,” said NFC World.
While the iPhone 5S impressed the world with its built-in fingerprint sensor, Apple may not have perfected the technology that would have included NFC.
Only time will tell if Apple chooses to embrace NFC – time will also tell if consumers around the world embrace NFC enough to justify its inclusion in our hand-held gadgets.