If you think QR codes are a bad joke then consider NFC. Near Field Communications’ evangelists have been trying to get smartphone owners to share stuff by bumping and grinding their phones for years. And progress has been painful, to put it mildly. The reality is NFC is an ugly wasteland of non-use. Ever seen anyone IRL tapping their phones together? Or tapping on an NFC tag or reader? It’s about as rare as hen’s teeth.
Granted NFC is used in some countries as a payment solution but as a general, catch-all system for close data transfer, it’s a dud. The latest setback for the NFC-pushers’ cause comes courtesy of Apple. During Monday’s WWDC keynote, Tim Cook & Co. were cracking jokes at the tech’s expense as they previewed a feature coming in iOS 7 that does the job of NFC without any of the awkwardness of NFC. It’s a classic Apple move to eschew complexity and avoid technology-based redundancy (see also: wireless charging).
It also suggests Apple is in zero hurry to add NFC to its devices. So no NFC in the iPhone 5S then. Instead, it’s adding AirDrop to iOS 7, which uses peer-to-peer Wi-Fi to allow content to be shared to nearby iOS 7 devices without having to physically tap anything together. Or, as Apple’s SVP of software engineering Craig Federighi, put it — whilst miming said NFC-induced social awkwardness — “No need to wander around the room bumping your phone.”
Of course there is a snag: Apple’s AirDrop is limited to sharing between iOS 7 devices, so it’s not an open pipeline. Still, neither is NFC — since sharing using that transfer tech means both people have to have NFC-enabled devices. It’s also worth flagging that Apple’s support for a standard can be the tipping point for the industry to coalesce around a particular technology (e.g. USB, or helping to kick Flash in favour of HTML5). Add to that there are other Wi-Fi sharing apps for iOS that work across Apple and Windows (e.g. Filedrop) and use a Wi-Fi pipe for the transfer. No NFC required.
Apple often talks about how the things it chooses not to do are as defining as the things it does. Well Apple doesn’t do NFC. And that speaks volumes. Don’t forget, NFC is not new. It’s been kicking around in phones since forever. And Apple still reckons it sucks. AirDrop isn’t the only example of Cupertino deliberately eschewing NFC, either: The Passbook ticketing and loyalty card hub introduced in iOS 6 uses visual barcode scanning to deliver its discounts. The phone owner calls up the barcode on their device and the retailer scans it with a barcode reader. NFC? Not a bit of it.
Another of NFC’s myriad problems — i.e. in addition to actually needing its users to act out the physical transfer themselves — is there’s no emollient term to oil the wheels of its use, especially in the commerce space. Want to use NFC on your phone to pay for something? Asking the cashier ‘can I tap that?’ just sounds euphemistic. Falling back on miming the action is the most elegant of the various inelegant options here. It’s another instance of the social awkwardness of NFC.
Just going ahead and trying to tap phone to reader won’t necessarily work either since some NFC POS terminals need to be switched on specifically to conduct the contactless transaction. Before even getting to that point, of course, the phone owner also has to have figured out they are looking at an NFC-enabled terminal. Some resemble standard POS terminals so wanting to pay by NFC means hunting for a ‘pay by contactless’ sign, or asking if NFC can be used at that outlet.
All these barriers to contactless entry fatally erode its convenience… at least for now. Sure it might one day provide a slick way for phones to be used to pay for stuff — but that requires NFC readers to be everywhere. Which they certainly aren’t yet, despite all the hype and cash poured into the space over the past five+ years. And sure, NFC technology can work well in more simple use-cases. London’s Oyster travelcard ticketing system uses NFC to replace paper tickets, for instance. But really, if the best you can say of NFC is that it’s a bit more convenient than paper, that’s not saying an awful lot.
Shortcutting settings or grabbing content was another use-case envisaged by the NFC pushers. Phone owners would be tapping their devices to NFC tags stuck on movie posters to get content downloaded to their handsets, or be sent to a URL to watch a film trailer (an idea which has been kicking around since the turn of the century, I might add). This sounds like exactly the sort of not-IRL scenario that gets dreamt up in marketing departments. If that’s the best you’ve got NFC, you need to try a lot harder. And an NFC tag for pre-setting an in-car phone profile? Oh pleeease.
It’s fittingly ironic that NFC is termed a ‘contactless’ technology when its proximity requirements necessitate physical contact — or at least getting so close it’s academic. ‘NFC: irritatingly invading your personal space’ doesn’t sound quite so handy does it?