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Near-field communications (NFC) has been getting a lot of attention lately. Most people have focused their attention on NFC as a credit card alternative, but there’s much more to it than that.
In reality, this short-range wireless communications technology has the possibility to change the way we interact with the world around us.
Google Wallet and the NFC capabilities in Android are focused on using NFC to facilitate payments.
For instance, NFC can improve, enhance and revolutionize check-in services and games. NFC also allows much easier device-to-device communications. Apps that use NFC for communicating between users’ smartphones can do so in a way that is far more reliable and foolproof that Bluetooth or barcode reading. Examples of this include Hashable for contact sharing and DoubleTwist for MP3-sharing. But even these examples only scratch the surface of what is and will be possible with NFC.
The most powerful application of the technology may be NFC tag reading and writing. Driven by the desire to drive consumer sales, NFC will enable self-serve checkout that will be faster and more error-free than barcoding. It can be done right on the aisles of the retailer to enable consumers to check prices, find more information on product specs and locate complementary products. And, unlike barcodes, NFC tags are writable. This allows prospective purchasers to express interest in products, leave comments and provide their information for followup by the merchant.
Because NFC tags are more expensive than barcodes or RFID tags (just under $1 in volume) they will make their way into high-end retail products first: Cars, electronics, consumer appliances. As more products start to include NFC tags, this will drive the price down even further. As the price goes down, NFC tags will make their way into products $20 and above (clothing, wine, shoes, Costco-sized purchases).
And then there are the phones. With almost 100 million NFC-equipped phones estimated to be shipped just over the next year and more than 1 billion predicted for the next four years, shopping, comparing, and purchasing via NFC-equipped smartphones will become commonplace.
Once the adoption of NFC is dominant for consumer goods, a more interesting shift will take place: Most new objects will be NFC-tagged. Eventually the majority of things in our environment will have NFC tags on them. This has the power to be the most transformative of all of the applications of NFC.
As one example, all cars will have NFC tags embedded, containing specifications, statistics and web links for more information on the vehicle. While automakers will initially do this to promote the car purchasing experience for consumers, the NFC information can be used by rental car companies, taxi and limo services and fleets of shipping and service vehicles to keep track of their assets.
It will work in manufacturing too. Machine tools will be sold to manufacturers with NFC tags embedded. Once deployed, those tags can be used during the manufacturing process: Workers will hold their device up to a machine to record their piece of the process.
NFC tags on most objects will change retail security. Merchandise will set off an alarm unless the NFC tag has been written to by a smartphone from an employee or the shopper. Shoppers’ phones will write to the tag to indicate a purchase.
Once purchased and in the home, the availability of the tag can be a cue for NFC smartphones about where the phone is located. For example, your desk at work might have an NFC tag embedded in it. When you put your phone down on or near the tag, it could switch to “office mode” (using the office Wi-Fi and turning off the ringer, for example). When you drive, you can put your phone near the car’s NFC sticker to put the device into “car mode” (which all Android devices have).
When you arrive at home you will hold your phone up to the NFC tag embedded in the door. This will turn the electronic lock, opening the door, but it will also switch your phones to “home mode,” enabling it to use your home Wi-Fi network and launching an app that connects to your home server to turn on the lights. Heading to the kitchen, you might then put your tablet next to the stovetop to begin cooking the evening meal. NFC tags in the tablet and stovetop recognize each other, then tablet starts up the recipe app with instructions on cooking tonight’s dinner. At the end of the evening, you’ll place your device on the bedside table and the proximity to another tag will bring up the clock/alarm app.
NFC truly enables the long predicted “internet of things,” changing how we interact with the world in subtle but pervasive ways.
Adam Blum is CEO of Rhomobile and has been CTO/VP of Engineering/co-founder of several successful startups in the mobile and web services spaces including Commerce One, Systinet, and Good. He is an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon and the author of several books on various computer science topics.
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