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Home arrow Tuesdays with Tukaiz arrow Mobility 3.0: Near-Field Communication
Mobility 3.0: Near-Field Communication
Tuesday, December 14 2010

A few years ago, an IBM commercial gained notoriety for showcasing the potential future of shopping at the supermarket. The commercial features a shady character sneaking around a green-tinted supermarket, grabbing and stuffing various items into his oversized trenchcoat. Patrons scowl and a security guard observes as he is seemingly attempting to steal these goods from the store. The presumed thief walks toward the checkout line and through what looks like an airport metal detector, and beams of light flash as he passes. A receipt prints, and the security guard goes after the man not for stealing from the store, but because he forgot to pick up his receipt. The presumed thief was actually a paying customer. The video (which you can view below) was illustrating IBM’s vision of a future scenario void of barcodes, primarily functioning on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. To facilitate checkout, each saleable item would actually be “tagged” with a small RFID transponder rather than a barcode.

A lot has changed even in the few years since IBM’s commercial hit the airwaves. While there was a lot of promise for consumer-level RFID technology (e.g., having RFID tags on individual consumer packaged goods), it never quite materialized. Cost was a major inhibitor to that level of adoption; even the simplest RFID tags require some form of electronics for power. When compared to the cost of printing a barcode on each package (and considering the entrenched barcode-driven system that is already in place), RFID tags are simply too costly to implement on a large scale. Nevertheless, RFID has been utilized heavily further up the supply chain. For instance, Walmart has had its suppliers include RFID tags on pallets of packages to streamline the tracking and flow of goods throughout its entire network. More recently, Walmart has added tags to individual packages of certain items, including men’s jeans and underwear, for the purposes of better inventory management (but not for easier checkout).

Has the promise of “contactless” technology to make our lives easier fizzled out? Not at all… it’s just happening in different ways. Perhaps you have a credit card that you can tap on a panel during checkout for instant payment. Maybe you live in Boston, Washington, D.C., or many of the other cities that have reloadable plastic cards that can be tapped at a subway station or on a bus for instant access. These are examples of technology called Near-Field Communication, or NFC for short. NFC uses radio frequency energy similar to RFID to invoke electronic, “contactless” transactions that are linked back to some type of credit account. While people may be most familiar with card-enabled NFC mentioned in the examples above, the technology is beginning to appear in smartphones and could have a profound impact on the importance of the mobile device in society.

Near-Field Communication has been available in phones for the past three or four years, with Nokia releasing the first NFC-enabled phones. Western European countries and their mobile phone carriers have been experimenting quite a bit with NFC, although usage has lagged in the United States. That may all be about to change; Google’s latest Android-powered smartphone, the Nexus S, has NFC technology built in, and Google is actively building NFC applications for users to try out. Its first attempt is a trial in Portland, Oregon with Google Places, a community-driven recommendation engine. Businesses in Portland can request a business kit, which includes a “Recommended by Google” sticker. This sticker has an embedded tag that, when tapped by a Nexus S or other NFC-enabled device, will take users to the associated Google Places page with information and ratings for the establishment.

The Google Places example is just scratching the surface on the potential for NFC. Right now, QR codes and other mobile barcodes are used to add interactivity and connect the physical world with the Web. Outdoor ads could be enabled with NFC technology, eliminating the need to accommodate for mobile barcodes in a design. While the Google Places example is used for gathering additional information, NFC could just as easily be used by businesses to enable extremely easy “checking in,” a popular function of location-based games like Foursquare that we’ve previously covered during Tuesdays with Tukaiz. All in all, NFC has the potential to make mobile devices an even more critical component of our everyday lives. Imagine not having to carry around credit cards to go shopping—just tap your phone to check out. Instead of carrying around that metro pass, just use your phone to gain access to the subway. NFC also enables easier connectivity with other NFC-enabled phones; instead of configuring Bluetooth connectivity to a phone, you just have to be near the person to transfer data.

While IBM’s supermarket vision may not be completely realized (or completely practical in the first place), Near-Field Communication technology comes strikingly close and makes practical sense considering the enhanced role of the mobile device in peoples’ lives. In addition to easier communication and more seamless experiences, NFC-enabled mobile devices give retailers of all sizes the opportunity to be innovative and resonate with a high-tech audience. As with any emerging technology, businesses should be cautiously optimistic in their approach to NFC, especially considering that adoption (in the U.S.) will be fairly low until more mobile devices are NFC-enabled. Still, there are over 150 members, including many mobile device makers, in the NFC Forum, the trade organization that develops and controls NFC specifications. With that kind of involvement and considering Google’s recent activity, Near-Field Communication has the potential to become a disruptive force in 2011.


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