Proponents say that near field communication (NFC) technology will change the world. With a simple tap of your mobile phone you'll be able to pay for things, download information
from posters, and open doors.
Many tech pundits, however, are skeptical about NFC. Some say there are better ways to do the same things. Others think NFC has a critical mass problem: Retailers won't invest in NFC infrastructure until everyone has NFC handsets, and manufacturers won't make NFC a standard feature on handsets until NFC infrastructure becomes ubiquitous.
The skeptics are mistaken. Retail businesses will flock to NFC once they see that it speeds checkout and creates new opportunities for interacting with customers. Consumers will warm to NFC when they discover that its tap-and-go operation is simple, convenient, and puts them in control.
New technologies don't succeed just because they promise unique capabilities or superior performance. The first customers must contend with high prices, a steep learning curve, and market inertia. But new technologies do succeed provided that they deliver qualitative advantages. NFC passes this test.
A Game Changer
NFC is a wireless security game-changer. NFC is as close to a cable connection as you can get with wireless. Though NFC operates at radio frequencies it communicates via the near field effect (also known as magnetic induction). Put another way, NFC antennas are designed to suppress the radio signal, leaving just the near field signal. If NFC's short range were merely due to the use of low power transmitters, then it could still be hacked from further away using sophisticated equipment. However, NFC's range is only 4 -- 20 centimeters because near field signals die out quickly as you move away from the antenna.
Ironically, NFC's exceptional physical layer security gives device manufacturers the confidence to make its default setting "on." As security specialist Charlie Miller demonstrated at a recent Black Hat conference, a hacker could surreptitiously connect to an NFC phone while brushing past its owner. What this means in practice is that a hacker has a better chance of tricking an NFC phone into visiting a malicious Web site when the user isn't looking than intercepting an NFC payment. However, such attacks can be thwarted by quarantining data until approved by the user, adding a button that must be depressed when using NFC, or doing a better job detecting software exploits.
NFC's superior physical layer security can be leveraged to securely "pair" Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct devices. This is a critical application because once two devices have been paired they will automatically connect whenever they come within range of each other. If the pairing is performed exclusively via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, then a rogue device impersonating one of the devices could hijack the process. Adding NFC makes "man-in-the-middle" attacks much harder to pull off because the pairing is done in a different part of the radio spectrum using a much shorter range wireless technology.
NFC Is Here To Stay
The evidence that NFC is here to stay is mounting. With the exception of Apple, top manufacturers are integrating NFC with their smartphones. Leading point-of-sale terminal manufacturers are doing the same. And handset manufacturers are offering programmable passive tags that allow individuals and businesses to create their own NFC infrastructure. Samsung's TecTiles and Sony's SmartTags can be programmed to initiate tasks such as changing the phone's settings, placing a call, or pulling up a web page. The uses for programmable NFC tags are limited only by the imagination. Tags affixed to automobile dashboards can be used to turn Bluetooth on or off with just a tap. Tags installed on retail displays can direct shoppers' phones to web pages with additional product information.
The biggest threat to NFC-based payments is an alternative solution that catches on first. So far, no other solution has proved to be as convenient and reliable as NFC. There are apps that encode payment details as bar codes (or QR codes) displayed on phones' screen, but laser scanners sometimes have trouble reading them. Other solutions avoid sending payment details over the local link but are vulnerable to identity theft.
NFC's tap-and-go operation will appeal to consumers. Tap-and-go is a constant reminder that NFC works only at close range. Much like turning on a light switch, tap-and-go is deliberate and tactile--it gives users the sense that they determine when NFC is used. Consumers will need time to get used to tap-and-go operation, but once they do they will find it even easier and more natural than swiping a credit card through a card reader.
And that's a good thing because there's not much of a future for plastic credit cards in a smartphone world. Embossed credit card numbers can be read and copied by anyone. NFC account numbers, expiration dates, and security codes are hidden from bystanders and even sales clerks. There are more secure ways to verify a user's identity using a smartphone compared to entering a four digit PIN on a checkout counter card reader. With NFC, one device can be your phone, keys, and wallet. Add a Bluetooth leash, and you'll never accidentally leave it behind. But don't think of it as a phone that stores credit card information--think of it as credit card with Web access, GPS locating, and more.
And NFC offers a bonus feature. Because NFC uses magnetic induction, the NFC antennas in gadgets can be used for wireless charging. One of Nokia's top designers has suggested that physical connectors could be eliminated on NFC phones.
NFC's tangible benefits -- secure transactions, protected device pairing, interaction with programmable tags, and wireless charging -- are fairly impressive. But often it's an intangible benefit that makes the greatest difference. Tap-and-go is likely to become one of modern life's rituals.
Ira Brodsky is the author of The History of Wireless: How Creative Minds Produced Technology for the Masses.