Apple Unlocks Another Piece of NFC – Enabling Read Operating Mode

There’s exciting news for the NFC ecosystem! The iPhone 7, 7+  as well as the Apple watch, will be christened with NFC tag readability when iOS 11 and Watch OS 4 releases in the fall of 2017. For those active in the ecosystem, it is evident why this turn of events is encouraging for unlocking NFC’s full potential in US markets. But if you’re wondering what the big deal is, here’s some background that will explain the enthusiasm.

For starters, Near Field Communication (NFC) is the short-range wireless connectivity technology that enables the Internet of Things. NFC tags are passive devices used to communicate with active NFC devices. They can be deployed on physical items, which makes for really cool interactions. NFC tags can be programmed and embedded in business cards, smart posters, stickers, wrist bands, clothing and promotional materials. They are extremely useful in the distribution of information and the promotion of products and services. They can also launch tasks, preform configurations, and initiate apps when being tapped by an NFC-enabled device. Unfortunately, the stunted growth of the NFC market has limited our access to the possibility IoT brings. That’s why this shift in Apple’s policy yields promise on the horizon.

Although iPhone 6 and 6+ have been NFC-enabled since 2014, the NFC capability of these devices has been intentionally limited by the company. Meaning that while all other NFC smart phones have been able to exchange data at a short distance as well as read and write information on NFC tags for years, the only NFC functionality accessible to Apple consumers up until this point has been Apple Pay, the company’s proprietary mobile payment application.

How much impact can one company’s adoption have? Let’s look at it this way: Apple shipped 231.5 million iPhones globally in 2015 and 216.4 million in 2016. This is a leading portion of the smart phone market. The impact of limited functionality from iPhone devices sent ripples across the NFC ecosystem. Conversely, Apple’s new inclusion of NFC tag readability in its 2017 updates will open up a new possibility for this technology with many use cases. I’m very excited to see what unfolds in the future.

Is NFC (Near Field Communication) Dead?

Editorial note: This article appeared in Linkedin on December 7th, 2016

I recently had coffee with a friend whom I hadn’t seen for a while. We chatted about our lives and work. He told me about the Internet of Thing (IOT) product he is marketing, and asked what I was up to. When I told him I was working on the 3rd edition of my “Everyday NFC” book, his next question astounded me: “Isn’t  NFC dead?” Surprised, I looked at him and reassured him it was not, and that I was committed to publishing my book soon. Part of my urgency in doing so is to correct such misunderstandings.

My friend is not alone in his assumption. Even in the technology field, many are clueless about NFC’s many applications in IoT and beyond. Not only is NFC alive, it is a widely used enabler that connects objects to  the Internet. IoT doesn’t exist without smart sensors. As Business Insider pointed out in their article entitled  21 technology tipping points we will reach by 2030 , “1 trillion sensors will be connected to the internet in 2022.” NFC will play a critical role in this process.

What is NFC? NFC is based on RFID technology. It is a technology that enables wireless data transfer in close proximity without the need for internet connection. NFC sensors can be integrated into devices and wearable in many fields. NFC Forum was established in 2004 and leads the effort for the unification of the NFC ecosystem. More than 140 companies are members of the NFC Forum.

NFC Forum has been promoting the relationship of NFC and IoT: “With 38.5 billion connected devices expected by 2020 and over one billion NFC-enabled devices already in the market, NFC is playing a key role in making the Internet of Things a working reality.”

Not only does NFC enable IoT, it plays an essential role in Industry 4.0 (Industry internet) to facilitate connectivity in smart factory manufacturing. The low cost of NFC tags can help identify items, tracking them, and even reflect on their conditions.  For example, the wine industry is using NFC tags to authenticate wine bottles in order to exercise brand protection.

The possibilities of NFC are endless; it is quite alive and thriving!

NFC Tag and QR Code

When I explained NFC tag to a friend, he replied, “I got it! It’s like QR code.” Spot-on. The concept is similar to QR code. QR code is popular enough for people to capture the concept. For those who aren’t sure what a QR code is, here is an example:Wikipedia_mobile_en

QR (Quick Response) code was created by a Toyota subsidiary in 1994 to track vehicles during manufacture. It became widely utilized worldwide in the last few years with the popularization of smart phones, which can be used as QR code scanners. For example: Front Flip is a mobile app that can be downloaded to an iPhone or Android phone to scan QR codes. Some restaurants place their QR code by the entrance of their stores. When customers scan it with Front Flip in their phones, they unlock a digital scratch-off card that provides a chance to win a discounted meal. This helps retaining customers. More than 30 such mobile loyalty apps have emerged in recent months [1].

The main difference between a QR code and an NFC tag is that NFC tags can be read by smart phones without an app. Today, most newly released smart phones are NFC enabled; they have an NFC chip inside the phone that communicates with NFC tags.

For example: Starbucks can embed an NFC tag in a poster promoting a new drink. When a customer taps his/her NFC phone to the tag, he/she gets a coupon for a discount. The customer can pass that coupon just by tapping his/her phone with a friend’s NFC phone. These are how NFC functions in open mode.

Cost-wise, the NFC tag is still much more expensive (around a dollar more) than QR code (which only costs pennies). The cost for NFC tags will drop as it becomes more widely adopted over time. Phone manufactures, telecoms, and service providers should educate their consumers about NFC devices in order to speed up the adoption rate.

ABI Research reported 102 million NFC handsets were shipped in 2012; 285M will ship in 2013 and 500M in 2014. NFC tablets and laptops have already been released. Sometimes, I wonder why telecoms can’t figure out how to promote NFC capability to their consumers when it’s so easy to demonstrate the advantage of using it and so many devices are available with the capability.

[1] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323689204578569382612115700.html?KEYWORDS=QR+code

NFC Tags Can Boost Your Product Sale

I found an NFC App Development book, “NFC Application Development for Android” and decided to use the book as a guide to develop my NFC app. Since I didn’t have the Android programing environment on my new NFC enabled tablet, I downloaded and installed software. While I was waiting for the process to complete, I wished that the book had provided an NFC tag to help me set up a development environment. That would save me time.

What is an NFC tag? Readers of this blog might wonder. Here is a short introduction. An NFC tag may look like a sticker; it contains an antenna and a limited amount of memory. When an NFC device touches a tag, the tag takes a small amount of power from it and activates its electronics to transfer data to the NFC device. There are different types of tags and different tags have different memory capacities. Usually the information is stored in a specific data format (NDEF-NFC data exchange format) in the tag.

NFC tags cost about a dollar. As the price drops, we shall see significant usage increase since most of the smart phones are NFC enabled. NFC tags can be embedded almost anything including posters, wearable devices, clothing, etc. For example, as a prototype effort, Adidas added NFC tags to boost their running shoes sale. Shoppers could find details product information by tapping their NFC enabled phones to an NFC tag embedded in “lace jewel”. The jewel receives live social networking feeds from a combination of platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so that it also can provide product reviews to the shoppers. It’s a powerful experience. I believe similar user experience will be integrated to our everyday life soon.