NFC - not for consumers?


Rory Cellan-Jones takes a look at NFC technology to see how it could turn the smart phone into a "smart wallet"

NFC - three letters that seem to mean an awful lot to the mobile phone industry right now, but nothing to the vast majority of its customers.

At Mobile World Congress this week, there are NFC posters, NFC demos on lots of stands - even a separate conference called the NFC Experience.

The GSMA which runs the annual shindig in Barcelona seems convinced that this is the year NFC really catches on - but then they've said that just about every year for the last decade.

Near Field Communications is a technology which allows small amounts of data to be exchanged when you tap two NFC devices together, or touch one against an NFC tag.

Apart from Apple, just about every manufacturer of smartphones now includes the technology as standard, so it is in more than 100 million devices.

I was given a demo of some of the uses on stands where various manufacturers were putting it through its paces.

In one scenario, I checked in at an airport, got access to the business lounge and then got through security, all by tapping my phone at various stages. No need for a paper boarding pass, explained the man showing me round.

Then I took my phone to a poster in the duty free shop, tapped on a picture of a bottle of perfume, and was able to pay to have a gift sent home. Finally, I played a song on my phone, then tapped it on a speaker which played the music.

NFC technology demonstration Testing NFC technology at the World Mobile Congress

Most of this worked quite efficiently (although it took me an age to get the knack of making the music beam to the speaker).

But I remain sceptical. For every use I was shown there are rival technologies which do the same thing, often more smoothly.

Heading through Barcelona airport on the way home, I flashed the virtual boarding pass on my non-NFC phone and went through without showing any physical document - except a passport.

Other technologies such as QR codes, augmented reality and smartphone apps are already competing to make virtual shopping and mobile payments a reality. And streaming music via speakers over wifi or via bluetooth seems a much smoother experience than I found with NFC.

There are some areas where I can see its appeal - tapping phones together to share photos is fun and less fiddly than sending via bluetooth. And maybe I can see a future where you swipe in and out on trains and buses using an NFC phone instead of a card.

Mind you, that idea has been around for quite a while. In 2007 I was involved in a trial where I used an early NFC phone to get access to London's transport system and pay for a coffee or a sandwich.

The experiment was hailed a success by the companies involved, but although you can now use NFC credit cards on London buses, there is no sign yet of travellers being allowed to swipe in via their phones.

Still, the GSMA now believes there is enough momentum and enough real-world examples of the technology that millions of us will soon be using it - even if we don't know it.

So convinced were the organisers of Mobile World Congress that they encouraged visitors to get an NFC pass for speedier entry to an event where security involves showing photo ID.

Sadly, the people I met told me that it proved to be a slower way of getting in than the old fashioned non-NFC pass.

Maybe we will all get used to tapping our phones to make life easier, but it is going to take a while.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    I already use an NFC tag at work to move around, & I'm looking at getting tags/stickers for toggling phone settings.
    Connect a friend to my wifi without giving the SSID & password, toggle GPS, switch BT off etc.
    One hassle would be if I have to remove it from it's case & unlock every time.
    If I can declare 'safe' UIDs for tags to execute without confirmation every time that might reduce the phaff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    I have been doing some experiments on this type of tech and frankly the security is abysmal, if you want criminals to be able to charge money to your phone at will from a distance of several feet go ahead and use NFC its not a 'near' as you think especially with good equipment. Plus if you are away from home and only use your phone to pay for things what happens if it breaks or runs out of charge?

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    What happens when the phone battery dies?

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    Hay! where did my post go?

    77,78,79, 81, 82, 83.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Here's the thing, this could be made into a secure way to make payments. The proble is to do that the banks would have to provide better infrastructure for the accounts and would have to be responsible for security. Unfortunatly most banks see IT as expendable, and have a level of security more akin to wishful thinking when it comes to individual payment methods such as cards etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    Sure, but you can't keep a yellow pages in your pocket. I'm aware that this is just my opinion but NFC doesn't give me access to anything that's more up to date, more interesting or in a smaller or more portable format that I can get already. Plus I don't know about others, but I'd keep it switched off anyway, my batter drains fast enough already thank you!

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    Granted, but so did a Yellow Pages and the local paper but you now choose to use a touchscreen or website.

    Why decry an alternate method of access.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    All of the non-payment uses that have been brought up, opening applications, setting the phone to silent, advertising are all things I can do right now with old fashioned things like the buttons on the touchscreen or a website that gives me the times at all my local cinemas (I know where they are).

    A lot of the 'applications' of NFC seem to point to it being a solution looking for a problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    Didn't marketing spammers want Bluetooth permanently enabled by manufacturers at some point, so they could beam adverts to your phone whenever you walked past an ad board or shop?
    Didn't happen, because most manufacturers refused to cooperate.
    Can you imagine the noise at the Trafford Centre in Manchester if this actually happened. Seems to me that NFC is going the same way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    The way forward is to combine the unique ID of the tag with an application which uses this.

    For example tap on a tag advertising a film at a bus stop.

    The NFC tag UID is sent via text to the film advertising company/distributer. The UID linked to the location of the poster and a text reply is given of the three closest cinemas to the poster location showing the film.

    NFC tags can be

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    It's about time the BBC got some new and impartial reporters in when it comes to cellular technology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Apple are right. There is little consumer interest in NFC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    "And streaming music via speakers over wifi or via bluetooth seems a much smoother experience than I found with NFC."

    NFC only initiated the connection to the speakers. Bluetooth kicks in after. NFC only has about a 4cm range and its benefit is its speed and ease of connection plus ability to pass connection on to something else or activate something else on your phone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    It would be great if someone could invent a battery with life enough in it to last the day . . . . . . All this technology is great. . . . . but the basics really need to be sorted out. . . . . .£450 for a phone who's battery lasts 4 hours max (when busy) is pathetic

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    Everytime we get on a bus, tube we get our £500 mobiles out and wave them about.

    How many muggers will we have following us down the street when we get off?

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Think it'll be like the QR code, a slow invasion. There are already NFC posters on the high street. Think the MWC push is much needed to raise awareness of the facility

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    @ Graphis
    The less we use cash, the more important the banks become. Unless you are one of those now rare people, paid in cash, there is always going to be a bank transaction somewhere in the loop! Even if it just involves an ATM. As for keeping an accessible "account" on your own hard drive, how is that to be verifiable except through a "banking" system? Virtual cash under the virtual mattress!

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    'Mark of the beast' does come to mind. Seems harmless enough but it will obviously lead to more and people will lap it up because it's technology and won't want to be left behind.

    Then again it's all made up! God, Satan, Goblins etc.. so no need to worry!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    In my part of the USA we would need to get things like ATMs and cell phone service first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Emperors new clothes.

    Better to stay 2 years behind the curve unless you have money to burn.


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