Near-Field Communication: All That’s Missing Is Spock

Near-field communication is the first real development to exceed the expectations set by our culture’s yardstick for what technology should be like…Star Trek.

NFC, as the technology is called, is just the ability to send weak, but information-rich, messages very short distances. I say “just” with some irony because NFC is the culmination of work that began when the first computer network was turned on around 1965. It also is the logical next step in computer interfaces, the high point of which today is controlling electronics with gestures.

The NFC market is broad to say the least – everything from retailers to multinational employers to pharmaceutical firms. More on how they’d use NFC in a moment.

NFC is two-way electronic interaction through proximity alone. In the Star Trek franchise, people interact with computers just by talking to them. With this new technology, portable devices, tablets, for instance, supporting NFC link to information or services you want merely by being close to another NFC device.

Without voice commands, keystrokes or hand-waving, information is exchanged or transactions are completed because of where you are.

The technology is closely related to radio-frequency identification, or RFID, tags, which a decade ago began replacing bar codes as a means of rapidly identifying and inventorying everything from crates of Pez candy dispensers to high-school students to war materiel. Tags, which are read by other devices, arealso sandwiched into credit and debit cards and fobs for purchases and keyless entry.

Debbie Arnold, director of the NFC Forum, an industry association, said that unlike NFC, RFID tools typically are one-way systems; tags wait to be read. As the name implies, RFID involves radio signals that, while comparably weak, are used to seek, collect and transmit information, again without anyone necessarily touching a button.

Some iPhone owners have enjoyed a foreshadowing of NFC for a few years, using an app called Bump to exchange digital business cards when tapping their iPhone (and thereby setting off its accelerometer) on another person’s Bump-enabled phone.

Interestingly, Apple chose not to give its new iPhone 5 NFC capability in favor of Passbook, its collection of electronic-purchasing features. Arnold declined to comment on Apple’s decision, instead saying that she’s confident the computer maker would reconsider.

“NFC is a very, very compelling proposition,” she said. “All of the power is in the consumer’s hand, and it’s just as immediate as touch and read.”

If NFC is going to take off, it will be because consumers see it as a low-cost convenience. Digitizing all the loyalty cards people carry would be a good start. While there is at least one app that does that, the process entails pulling up the app at the register and having the account information scanned.

It would be a boon for retailers in terms of impulse purchases, say at gas station minimarts, where it’s in everyone’s interest to move people through as fast as possible, said Arnold. Similarly, ticketing for everything from airlines to movie theaters works best with a minimum of literal and figurative friction.

In large companies, particularly those with mobile workforces, resources could be provisioned or withheld across the entire enterprise. Management could also track employees with great detail, something that comes with as many potential pitfalls as possibilities for smooth operations.

Presumably, pharmaceutical companies, to say nothing of regulators, would like smart bottles that tell patients about their meds, when to take them or even if they’ve already done so.

NFC vendors and associations cite new opportunities for advertising. In these scenarios, you might pause before an ad, say, in the mall, and tap it or otherwise prompt a wireless transfer of data about the product or service.

That last idea might need some more thinking, but it’s clear that NFC presents some measurable upside for a broad range of consumers and businesses. The trick, as always, is optimizing actual utility while minimizing the pain of actual use.

Jim Nash

Jim Nash

Contributor at Tech Page One
Jim Nash is an award-winning business, tech and science journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Economist Group and Scientific American.
Jim Nash
Tags: Downtime,Gadgets & Devices,Technology