Near Field Communications (NFC): Its Useful for More Than Just Payments

iphone-icon-3gsI recently read a post on Ars Technica explaining the technical side of Near Field Communications, or NFC for short.  Like most folks, I have heard that it can be used for payment processing.  A couple of credit cards have the technology built in to allow the carrier to simply pass their card over the payment terminal in order to initiate payment.  More common, at least in the US, is SpeedPass at the gas pump.  Just swipe your key fob over the logo at the gas pump and you can fill-up with the transaction auto billed to your credit card.  But deep in the guts of the Ars Technica post, I was really impressed with other possible uses of the technology.

Near Field Communication, as the name implies, allows 2 devices to communicate when they are in close proximity.  The range can be configured via the devices and ranges from a fraction of an inch to nearly a foot.  Please check out the Ars Technica story for the technical specifics and great detail on the history of the technology as well as its various iterative forms.

NFC could include a small passive tag imbedded into something like a movie poster or a display kiosk.  This way, if someone with a NFC equipped smart phone approaches the display, they would have the option to gather additional info about the movie or product with little or no interaction with the display.  For example, its traditional for a movie poster to have a URL at the bottom so anyone interested in more info on the movie can visit the web site.  But with a FNC enabled poster, the user doesn’t even need to enter the site URL to go directly to the movie info.  The passive NFC chip in the poster can broadcast the link info directly to a smart phone so the user can visit the web page with no need to manually enter the site address.

When I first read about this, I was less than impressed.  The idea of having a poster or display offering up this type of info is of minimal interest to me.  In fact, I can only hope that good sense is standard practice from the technology’s onset.  For example, I want to make sure my phone is intelligent enough to let me select the info I want displayed.  I don’t want a poster I pass on the street to have the ability to pop info up on my cell phone that I didn’t request.  Such interaction would be abuse of the technology, in my opinion.  So the question becomes, where can NFC really be put to a more powerful use?

Often when I get together with friends, we end up pulling out our smart phones in order to show each other some great app we have found, or even to transfer a file from one device to another.  It turns out that NFC could make this sort of exchange both simple and safe.

Currently, data or file exchange requires some sort of user authentication such as a username and password.  In many cases it also requires more complicated configuration information such as a network address.  But it turns out that NFC can be used with existing technology to greatly simplify and streamline the process.

For example, consider two smartphones.  Currently it is possible to exchange data over either Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi.  But, in the case of Bluetooth, this requires a complicated and error prone pairing process.  In the case of Wi-Fi, it requires both devices to be members of the same wireless network and to somehow locate each other on that network and then negotiate some kind of user access.  But NFC can be added to this negotiation to make the information exchange almost impossible to mess up.

Start the process by simply placing the two phones within an inch or two of each other.  This gives them the chance to trigger negotiation so they can sort out the best means of communication.  For example, both phones might have Bluetooth on board.  They could use that to exchange information.  But both devices might also support Wi-Fi.  Since Wi-Fi supports a much faster data rate and doesn’t require the devices to stay with a few meters of each other, it would be more advantageous to negotiate a Wi-Fi connection between the two devices.  Properly implemented, the devices could go through a negotiation that compares what means of communication they can both deal with and sort out which is the most advantageous at the same time.

So, say we start the entire process by clicking an option on the phone’s user interface.  This puts the phone into some sort of promiscuous mode… it knows to look for connection requests.  Then just wave the two phones near each other and let the software prompt you to allow communication with device XYZ.  After that, the phones can negotiate the best form of communication.  It could be anything from auto pairing Bluetooth connections to something such as auto generating an impromptu ad hock Wi-Fi network on the fly.

NFC is used to get the two devices talking.  Since its range can be restricted to within an inch or two, its narrows outside forces from trying to attack the communication.  An attacker would have to have extreme proximity in order to become a part of the process.  Add to that some common sense in the devices user interface, for example, the option to have the devices search out NFC network negotiation for, say 30 seconds.  This gives the users time to wave the devices near each other.  Then the device would prompt both users saying that device XYZ requests communication.  This way the users have the ability to see who is essentially nocking on their door and confirm the communication before communication is allowed.  Once the connection is authorized, the two devices can do the legwork behind the scenes.  Be it Bluetooth pairing or Wi-Fi configuration.  After that, the devices can communicate in a more traditional way.

It’s a tough process to explain, but if you follow the process through or if you have ever tried to pair devices manually in such a way, this sort of implementation could greatly simplify the way we exchange information.  Using some sort of key fob or hardware network token, NFC could also be used like a literal network key where network clients cannot join a wireless network unless they join the network via a pairing process that uses the physical device.

When I initially read about Near Field Communication, I really wasn’t impressed.  I can see it being useful for users who would like to use their smart phone as a credit card style payment token.  I’m not entirely convinced it’s a good way to go, but it could prove to be the future of financial transactions.  But the idea of using NFC to unlock the door to my house or car does hold a great deal of appeal.  I think that using NFC to simplify data connections or network communication is a key selling point for the technology, even if it isn’t grabbing headlines.  Rumor has it that the upcoming iPhone 5 will also offer NFC support.  While Apple has yet to comment on this, Google has already publicly announced that new Android based smart phones will support NFC.  So, one way or another NFC is about to be release upon the United States.  Given time it stands to improve the way we communicate, and it might even drastically affect the way to live our day-to-day lives.

UPDATE 2/17/11 12:30pm
A story posted this morning on AppleInsider describes the likelyhood that Apple will include NFC with the next release of the iPhone.  It also describes a possible implimention that would help mobile users with secure remote computing.  Here’s a exerpt:

Last November, one rumor claimed that Apple could use NFC technology in both its future iPhones and Macs to allow RFID-enabled “remote computing.” It was said the rumored technology would allow users to securely turn a nearby Mac into their own personal computer, complete with custom settings, personal passwords, and even desktop backgrounds.

Check out this link for the full story.

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