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Issue 35

Touched by NFC

Larisa Hogaș
Android Developer @ Yardi România
@Yardi România
PROGRAMMING

Like many other things that we use, develop or innovate, I started the NFC journey by searching a solution for a simple problem: remembering to do things before I leave the house, more specifically, remembering to turn off the central heating system or even finding something that could do it for me. Of course then I realised that I had multiple other ideas that would ease my life or make it cool and fun. For example I wanted a way to unlock my phone without any interactions or open my car just by getting closer to the driver's seat and many other wishes. And then NFC appeared, just like Santa, and made some of them happen.

What is NFC?                                                       

Near Field Communication (NFC) is a set of short-range wireless technologies, typically requiring a distance of 10cm or less to initiate a connection. It makes life easier and more convenient for consumers around the world by making it simpler to make transactions, exchange digital content, and connect electronic devices with a touch. NFC is compatible with hundreds of millions of contactless cards and readers already deployed worldwide.

The NFC technology has many forms and shapes but the most commonly encountered are NFC Tag(passive device) and smartphones(active device). Tags can range in complexity. Simple tags have a bit of storage memory, along with a radio chip attached to an antenna and offer just read and write semantics, sometimes with one-time-programmable areas to make the card read-only. More complex tags offer math operations, and have cryptographic hardware to authenticate access to a sector. The most sophisticated tags contain operating environments, allowing complex interactions with code executing on the tag.

The data stored in the tag can also be written in a variety of formats, but many of the framework APIs are based around a NFC Forum standard called NDEF (NFC Data Exchange Format).

Even if the technology has a few years on the market already, I feel like its maximum potential has not been reached yet. Android released its first NFC supported phone in 2010 (Samsung Nexus S), followed by Windows in 2012 (Nokia Lumia 610) and finally Apple in 2014 with iPhone 6 (just for Apple Pay).

Why is it not on the Walk of Fame yet?

Just by looking at the above information, I would definitely say that NFC should conquer a large percentage of users and businesses. But it doesn't. Let's see why!

Early business models such as advertising and industrial applications were not successful, having been overtaken by alternative technologies such as QR code, barcodes or UHF tags, but what distinguishes NFC is that devices are often cloud connected. All NFC-enabled smartphones have access to dedicated apps including 'ticket' readers as opposed to the traditional dedicated infrastructure that specifies a particular (often proprietary) standard for stock ticket, access control and payment readers. By contrast all NFC peers can connect to a third party NFC device that acts as a server for any action (or reconfiguration).

Next, I'll try to make a small study by analyzing its usability, advantages and potential from different perspectives.

A business's perspective

NFC isn't a fundamentally groundbreaking technology. Like Bluetooth and WiFi, it's a wireless radio communications standard. In the wireless world, NFC's closest relative is actually RFID (radio frequency identification). Because of its lower costs, needs and customizations, NFC can come in handy in multiple problems. NFC tags have different forms from simple stickers, self-destructing ones to industrial waterproof tags resistant in extreme environments. Its reading and writing capabilities also differ from just a write-once, read-only, unlimited read-write operations or password protected memory space.

All companies that keep track of things should love this technology.  Retailers, shipping companies, dry cleaners use NFC tags incorporated in packages, clothes, different selling objects can use NFC to keep inventory on supplies or shipments.

A smart tag could be embedded into any flyer. Tap the tag, and you're directed to a Web site, receive a contact's details, even get a candidate's CV or a snappy biography in the form of a text file or image. Some malls (even in Romania) use it for advertising purposes or even as a treasure hunt discount/gift card game.

But since we are in the era of the Internet of Things, smarter solutions and ideas came in focus. Companies use tags for time tracking their employees, as well as solutions for project time task tracking or leave management. Combined with NFC, employees can easily start and stop their tasks from any location with their smartphones, or conveniently when entering and exiting the building.

Healthcare, marketing, payments - the sky is the limit. But my favorite thing must be a wearable (ring, wristband) that unlocks with a touch a smartphone, a door or even your car. NFC module used in combination with a GPS system can locate things, pets or persons easily.

What are the users' opinions?

Unless you're a geek user or working in IT environment, you probably never heard about this technology before even if it has almost 5 years on the market.

Users still need to be educated about this technology. In my opinion, and it hurts to say this being an Android developer, probably the main reason why it's not on Walk of Fame is the missing support from iOS. Apple only supports Apple Pay through NFC and there is no API support, not even in the latest iOS 8. The main justification for this blank space is, in their words, the "security reason". I'll investigate this issue later.

What about a developer?

Unless you're an Android or a Windows developer, you're missing a lot of fun. Android was the first OS that gave API support for interacting with NFC Tags and introduced the notion of Beaming - a feature to allow data to be transferred via NFC with other Android phones. It allows exchange of web bookmarks, contact info, directions, YouTube videos, and other data.

When I finally reached the interesting part, I find that I have too little space left and too much to say, so I'll wrap this up and find you in a following article when we'll dig deeper in Android's NFC features.

Conclusion

NFC is starting to conquer more users day by day and we could definitely make it useful in lots of areas of interests. Development is easy, secure protocols(NFC Signature RTD 2.0) of signing and checking data integrity are now used, password protected access memory tags are available, so I see no reason why this technology shouldn't be more lively on the market. Too bad Apple doesn't want to join this party.

Source

http://nfc-forum.org/

https://developer.android.com/guide/topics/connectivity/nfc/index.html

http://www.nearfieldcommunication.org/

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