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NFC is the way of the future

Posted 2014-09-07

NFC is an amazing technology. Mark my words: it's going to be huge. Whether Apple adopts it next week or not. The reason: it ties together the physical world with the networked world. When scanning for Wi-Fi networks or bluetooth devices, it's really hard to know which names on your screen map to which devices in the real world. So Wi-Fi requires typing long and complex network passwords and bluetooth uses an annoying pairing procedure. NFC, on the other hand, really is plug and play. Without the "plug" part.

NFC (near field communication) is based on RFID (radio frequency identification). The simplest RFID chips only hold a serial number. More advanced ones can do some processing and store a little information. The interesting thing is that they don't have batteries. Instead, RFID readers emit an electromagnetic field that transfers enough power to the chip to wake it up and have it talk to the reader. RFID chips easily fit inside a credit card or even a paper transit ticket and they cost as little as a few cents. NFC is an extension to RFID that allows communication between more powerful devices, such as cell phones.

So what's the big deal, can't you do the same thing with barcodes or QR codes or magnetic stripes?

This is true for simple RFID chips, which provide nothing more than a serial number that anyone with an RFID reader can read. Presumably, copying such an RFID chip is also easy, just like copying a barcode or magstripe is trivial. But more advanced RFID chips have on-board authentication mechanisms, and will only talk to authenticated readers.

In the short term, the killer app for NFC is going to be payment systems. I've been reading a lot on American websites on how such a system won't go anywhere, because it doesn't provide any merchant or consumer benefits.

I don't agree. A payment system that uses NFC-equipped cellphones can be simultaneously easier to use and more secure. The chip+PIN system that's now used in Europe is also quite safe, because all the sensitive data is stored inside the chip and can't easily be copied. However, inserting the card and typing the PIN is still a bit of a hassle and it's still possible for the PIN to be intercepted so the card can be charged if it's stolen or the magstripe is copied.

Here in the Netherlands, two of the three large banks are now rolling out debit cards with an RFID chip to allow contactless payments. This seems less secure at first blush because in theory, someone could read (and charge) the card while it's in your pocket. However, RFID/NFC only works over very short distances (less than 10 cm) and online authorization from the bank is required, so in practice this is not going to be a fruitful attack vector. Interestingly, small payments can be made without entering a PIN. Only for payments over 25 euros (or once small payments add up to 50 euros) the PIN must be entered. So paying small amounts with a contactless card will be much faster and more convenient than with a regular card.

But how does the addition of a phone make any of this better?

I'm glad you ask. There are actually RFID stickers that you can stick on your phone so you can "use your phone" for contactless payments. However, if Apple adds NFC to the iPhone 6, this means that rather than entering your PIN on a terminal—which may or may not be outfitted with a PIN spying camera—you could enter the PIN on your iPhone. Or better yet, use the touch ID sensor. I imagine that for small amounts, simply having the phone unlocked would be sufficient. For larger payments, you would have to authenticate using the fingerprint sensor.

I also think that this is will be the extent of Apple's involvement in the payment process.¹ Sure, Apple has hundreds of millions of credit card numbers on file. But being a payment processor entails a lot of customer service and surprisingly thin margins, so i'd be very surprised if Apple had any interest in that business. However, the card issuers are going to love the strong fingerprint authentication, which will surely reduce fraud. This will give Apple significant leverage for negotiating better rates for iTunes / app store credit card payments. Remember that Apple sells more than half of its iPhones outside North America, so even if none of this materializes in the US, that doesn't necessarily mean the whole thing was a failure. In fact, there is some speculation that NFC payments may be a must-have feature in some regions.

Of course all of this is just the camel's nose. Once tens of millions of popular devices have NFC capability, and that capability can be used in third-party apps using APIs (we can only hope!), it won't be long before new and innovative uses of NFC will develop. Remember the bump app for exchanging business cards by bumping phones together? With NFC this would be much easier. There are already bluetooth devices that can be paired through NFC. There are RFID stickers you can scan with an NFC phone to change the phone's settings quickly. Setting up a Wi-Fi network, unlocking a computer (or your front door!) without a password, charging up your Oyster card or OV-chipkaart—or replacing that card. I'm sure tying the networked world and the physical world together quickly, easily and securely will lead to lots of innovations that we haven't even thought of.

¹ I wonder how the connection between a bank account or credit card an the iPhone will be made, though.

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