Near Field Communication and the Future of Mobile

A few days ago I reviewed Google Wallet and talked a little bit about Near Field Communication (NFC). As you may have read, Google Wallet allows people to use their credit cards, gift cards, and reward cards without having a physical card on them. They can use the app to scan the card using NFC. Google Wallet also offers NFC-only coupons through participating businesses. I truly believe that with the help of Google, NFC will revolutionize how we use our mobile devices – and not just with financial information.

My friend and I, both Software Engineers, have had fairly lengthy discussions recently about uses for NFC and what it means for the future of mobile. We’ve discussed its current capabilities, its potential capabilities, and the possible issues that will arise.

Current Capabilities

I touched on these in my Google Wallet review. Right now NFC is capable of, and being used for, sending simple data like apps, directions, contact information, and more, as well as payment processing. The former is powerful because it can be (and is being) leveraged by application developers. Developers are using it to send business cards, transfer various files, and even read those annoying anti-theft tags that are found on some items in stores. Paypal is working NFC into the latest version of their app so one user can send funds directly to another’s account just by touching phones.

There are tons of developers creating more and more such apps every day using the technology that is currently out there. With the current capabilities of NFC, sites like Groupon and Living Social can integrate NFC coupons right into their apps like Google Wallet did. Barcode scanners for certain items may be rendered useless for the more convenient NFC reader.

Obviously the latter is the big ticket item as far as NFC goes. You can add certain credit, gift, and reward cards to Google Wallet and can “clip coupons.” The carriers (Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile) have launched their own similar technology called ISIS. With more support from vendors, Google Wallet and similar apps have the ability to almost completely replace your wallet. The only thing you’d need to carry around is identification.

Speaking of which…

Future Capabilities

NFC could be used for so much more than just data transfer and payments. Imagine you’re planning a Disney Vacation (as it turns out, I am). You purchase your park tickets, reserve your hotel, buy your flight tickets, and you’re ready to go. Instead of printing everything off before you go to the airport, you get there and just wave your phone at the kiosk, where it asks you to enter a PIN that they issued to you. It then checks the tickets on your phone, as well as your identification, and you’re on your way. 

Once you touch down in Orlando and head to the hotel, you check in using your phone and they beam you your room key, all using NFC. Now you just wave your phone in front of your room’s lock and it unlocks. Finally, it’s time to go to the park. You go through the turnstile but instead of sliding your park ticket through a reader, you hold your phone up to it. You’re in, and your phone displays how many more times you can use your ticket.

Pretty cool, right? The truth is that all of this and more is possible with NFC. As long as vendors get a reader that supports NFC, capable phones can quickly and easily send information to those devices.  And I know what you’re thinking; everything I said might seem reasonable in theory, except for one step: the identification. It seems crazy and impossible that people would be able to identify using NFC. However, in the USA passports now have RFID chips embedded, something that was put in place back in 2005. Admittedly, there is the glaring problem of security and identity theft prevention.

Possible Issues

The biggest issue with NFC is also its biggest convenience: how easy it is to transfer data. There are probably apps being developed right now designed to try and intercept data via NFC. The comforting though is that NFC really is near field. You need to be about 7 inches or closer in order to get a read, with most apps now requiring an even smaller distance – Android Beam, built into Android 4.0, pretty much requires the devices to be touching. But there are other issues, especially with the future capabilities I described.

How would one ensure that they did not tamper with the data on, say, an NFC driver’s license or passport to change the owner’s age from 18 to 21? There would probably require photo verification, which would need human verification (at this point) or a facial recognition camera (in the nearish future). For tickets (for parks, planes, concerts, sporting events, etc.) there would need to be some sort of uncrackable vendor signature to ensure that the tickets are not counterfeit. There would also need to be a way to transfer ownership in case event tickets are sold on. These are just some of the issues that can arise from relying on devices for sensitive information.

Final Thoughts

What we have now as far as NFC is pretty cool; the ability to easily transfer information between devices is novel and the ability to pay with your phone is outright awesome. What we can have soon is mind blowing.

Having a single device able to grant you access to whatever you need is so futuristic that it’s both exciting and horrifying in equal measure. And while there are issues we need to look out for – specifically in the security arena – these are problems that have surfaced before and ones that can be solved by building off current solutions like encryption, vendor signatures, and more.

I’m really excited to see what NFC brings to mobile devices. If the story I painted for you comes to fruition, I’ll be a very happy man.