How to Fix NFC and Help it Go Mainstream…

Near Field Communications (NFC), promised to turn your phone into the digital key to your identity, transport and money.

The problem? This promise has been around since the late 90s, and shows no sign of crossing the chasm

How Does NFC Work?

The idea is you present your NFC device, to the NFC reader… and almost instantly the transaction is complete.  This will be very familiar to those of you who use the Oyster card on the Tube.

The User Experience Problem

Have you tried paying with a contactless card?  You’re never quite sure when to present the card to the reader, and often it can take a couple of seconds for the reader to recognise the card.  This creates a sloppy experience, and one that means only those with unlocked Nexus devices are using NFC today.

Google solved this in peer to peer using the “tag dispatch” system.  Sadly, the likes of Igenico, Verifone and Streamline who build the payments terminals most retailers use do not react nearly as well as an Android device does.  Herein lies the problem.

How *should* NFC work?

  1. NFC must be as easy to use as a touch screen.  This means overcoming any lag (like the contactless card example above).  This requires the same kind of user experience as touch screens now have.  If you remember those awful touch screens from 10 years ago? Or the one at your local supermarket… vs your phone.  NFC has to make that kind of leap in user experience.
  2. NFC software needs to be context sensitive.   When recognising another NFC device, both devices need to know how to play with each other and what the rules of the game are.  For a specialist NFC App working with an NFC terminal, this isn’t a huge problem… but if you just want to put your phone near the ticket machine at the train station… this becomes a problem.
  3. NFC must become more open.  NFC being a standard that has been driven by the GSMA is needless to say, very Mobile Operator driven.  The whole ecosystem is designed to be managed and leased by the provider of the NFC chip, who in turn re-sells that access.  This is a huge financial hurdle to adoption.  Why should OEM’s and big business adopt NFC, if the MNO gets to be the gatekeeper and charge for the privilege?

Crossing The Chasm

To solve these challenges, old school hardware manufacturers will need to embrace a Google like approach to NFC.  Speed and user experience is everything.  Contextual sharing (media, contacts, documents) has largely been solved, and I expect Apple to follow where Google has led.

Adopting This Approach Would Benefit

  • Security (door locks, car locks, building access)
  • Transport (rail, airlines – similar to how barcodes work today)
  • Ticketing (events, sports)
  • Form of Identify (Passport app, Driving Licence app)
  • Logistics (RFID style self aware packaging)

I’m sure you can think of plenty more, but the above are some of the more common examples.  My speculation is that this is why Apple has focussed on Passbook initially.  Apple owns a portion of the user experience.  The older organisations that own logistics and specialist ticketing equipment may take a little longer to catch up…

Your Thoughts Here:

Do you think NFC has what it takes to go mainstream?  Will another contender like Bluetooth 4 become standard because it’s not driven by the GSMA?  How can older manufacturing led businesses improve their NFC performance?

  • Raymond Lee

    Not quite sure I can agree that NFC is driven by the GSMA. NFC is a collection of a number of different standards and what I think you are alluding to is the use of NFC to effect Card Emulation on a Mobile using Single Wire Protocol. The likes of NFC Forum, ISO and others have a much wider say in the actual standards of NFC and how it moves ahead. As for BT4, given all the public misconceptions around security, BT4 will not address any of these and will, in fact, be worse. If the public are worried about theft at 4cm then how are they going to feel about theft at 50meters? 

    NFC does have what it takes to go mainstream, but in order to do so there needs to be a lot more joined up thinking from, as you point out, the likes of the device OEM’s. payment terminal vendors, financial services and MNO’s. Until then it will remain fragmented. 

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  • sytaylor

    Ray, thanks for your thoughts.  I guess I should qualify my statement.  The use of NFC and Trusted Service Managers has thus far been largely driven by MNOs because of the SIM card relationship.  

    With OEMs looking to remove the SIM card from the equation, it is likely that NFC has a future as a P2P transfer protocol / mechanism, but if we’re doing P2P only, wifi direct or BT4 qualify equally over the longer term.  Since all standards will face the security question and are currently wanting, for NFC to thrive it needs to add more strings to it’s bow.

    I hear a lot about innovation at companies who haven’t traditionally embraced it.  Yet I see very little.  Looking at how Google solved some of the NFC problems, could help NFC in more traditional organisations.

  • d