The way in which we wirelessly transmit and receive data on the phones has changed over the years. We’ve gone from transferring data between devices using infrared in the earlier bit of the last decade to Bluetooth, which is still quite popular, but now, things have quickly gone on to Wi-Fi. Although each of these trends caught on quickly, is has never been an easy task, rather confusing getting around with – setting up Bluetooth, IR or Wi-Fi. Now, the term NFC might echo in your head. A few companies are quite excited about it and you might think that it’s the next big thing in wireless data transmission, offering much higher speeds at much larger distances. But, things aren’t what they seem – NFC is not just another upgraded data transfer standard. Let’s dwell into this upcoming technology and see what it is, how it works and how it might be the future.

What is NFC?

Near Field Communication, or NFC as it is more commonly referred to, is basically a wireless technology that allows products to transfer data in close proximity with the other object. It’s actually based on something called RFID (Radio-frequency identification). RFID would allow devices to receive information from RFID objects from a distance of roughly 20 ft. This is done without the need for placing the scanner next to the object – something that’s absolutely necessary for QR codes and bar codes. 

An RFID chip that would typically be found on a product

An RFID chip that would typically be found on a product

RFID, in its early stages was used in identifying products and also for marking livestock. NFC in its form today is a more refined and a more mainstream use of the similar technology. Nokia, Philips and Sony (according to Wikipedia) are some of the founding members of the NFC Forum, which now has 150 different companies. Pretty much every major technology company is present in it. 

How does it work?

Tags are installed on objects or devices. In early days, RFID tags were used to tag cattle, but now they’re being used on a number of things. There are different kinds of tags active and passive – some that need power to operate and some that don’t need a power source. The NFC standard allows reader devices, such as a mobile phone to be placed in close proximity to an object. There’s a small amount of power generated by the signal that’s generated, due to induction, by the phone or the reader device used. This power is used to transmit the data to the reader device. There are a number of things happening before the actual transfer of data – the transmission, the kind of supported applications and the application being used for this transmission. All this is oblivious to the user using the NFC application.

NFC Forum - a group of some 150 technology companies

NFC Forum – a group of some 150 technology companies

NFC wasn’t designed to be fast and it’s not a replacement for Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Don’t expect NFC to be the one transferring data at over 300Mbps – it's fairly slow as far as throughput is concerned. NFC only works in very close range, get out of this range and the connection breaks. That’s what makes it secure as well. NFC can initialize transfer. For example, NFC has the ability to be used to complete the authentication process required to contact a data server and transfer this data over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. That’s what makes NFC, so easy to use. So you could get close to a product, tap it and the device will switch on Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, authenticate and receive the data required. 

Where can you use it?

The applications are endless. Here in India, things haven’t taken off, yet, but in the U.S and in some other countries, NFC is being utilized in many places. Google Wallet, for example allows users to walk into a store and make payments using their phone. All you do is simply tap the phone on the reader and the necessary transactions are completed. Transactions aren’t only meant for payments and other secure modes.

Google Wallet - one of the first few services to support NFC based transactions

Google Wallet – one of the first few services to support NFC based transactions

They can be used for authenticating phones to consumer electronics. For example, we received Nokia’s Play 360, a portable speaker that can be connected to a Nokia NFC compatible device by simply tapping it. This is obviously a lot simpler than having to manually add a Bluetooth speaker, enter in passkeys and then connect. The same NFC system could be used in a number places – a mall for example, to query the prices of products or to pay the bills.

How do you get to use NFC?

RFID readers are easily available in the market, but mainstream devices with NFC are only available in the form of smartphones. RIM, Nokia and Google are some of the companies pushing for NFC support. There are quite a few phones being released with NFC receivers built into them. The Nokia 700, 701, N9, Google’s Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S, Samsung’s Galaxy Note and RIM's BlackBerry 9930, are just some of the devices that have NFC capabilities built into them. These are fairly expensive phones and you can expect NFC technology to be available in cheaper phones.

A wave of phones with NFC is slowly entering the market

A wave of phones with NFC is slowly entering the market

Unfortunately, here in India, there isn’t a lot to check out as far as NFC is concerned. Awareness isn’t present, just yet, but hopefully with companies like Nokia tying up with companies to implement NFC in their stores and payment transaction methods, it might catch on. Still, it’s going to be sometime before NFC is widespread enough to be able to walk to the shop next door and pay using your phone. 

Publish date: February 3, 2012 5:39 pm| Modified date: December 18, 2013 9:31 pm

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