I’ve been playing with NFC (Near Field Communication) tags. These are popular in Japan and they’re spreading in the USA. There are many clever ideas for NFC, which will lead to new kinds of companies.  You can easily create your own NFC tags.

An NFC Tag. These are stickers, about the size of a quarter (1" or 2.5 cm wide). They contain a small chip to hold data.

I have an Android phone (Galaxy IIS). I bought an HTC Amaze for Helen a few weeks ago (also Android) and while I was fooling around with it, I found it also had NFC capability. Within a few minutes, I turned it on in both phones and was able to send short text messages from one phone to the other via NFC.

In Summer 2010, I got a BlingTag for my phone: a little sticker on the back of the phone ties my phone and my Paypal account so I can pay at some 40-50 shops in Palo Alto. It was one of the first uses of NFC. We’ve come to the next step: the NFC is built into the phone.

NFC is “Near Field Communication“, which is like Bluetooth: it uses short-distance radio waves. Bluetooth works up to maybe 100-150 feet; NFC works up to about 4 cm (two inches). You touch your NFC phone to another NFC phone and the information is passed along.

The phone’s power lets it send and receive via NFC. There are also “passive NFC tags”: these have no power, so they send information only when a powered NFC device (your phone) is (very) nearby. You wave your phone over the NFC tag, it sends data, your phone picks up the data. Unlike Bluetooth, no pairing is required. Just hold the phone over the tag and the data appears.

What kind of data? The NFC tags vary in size. The smallest holds 64 bytes and these go up to 752 bytes. It can hold any kind of data: text, URL, telephone, email address, etc.

At Amazon.com, I bought a pack of NFC tags (Mifare Ultralight, 64 bytes, ten for $15). These are little stickers. Just use your phone to write info onto them and then stick them wherever you want. You use an app, such as NFC Task Launcher, by Joshua Krohn ($1.99 at Android Market) to write the tag. There are several of these, incl. free versions.

64 bytes can hold 43 characters (incl. spaces). You can use very long URLs by using URL compression, such as Bit.ly. For example, a URL plus tracking code (such as http://www.andreas.com/info-kpi.html?utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_term=ltv &utm_content=september&utm_campaign=kpi-ebook ) (which is a real URL) can be compressed to http://bit.ly/A9pGKq (To do this, use bitly.com.) That long URL fits onto an NFC tag.

This means there is no practical limit to the amount of information that can be relayed via an NFC tag.

Unique IDs can be embedded in the link. The links are also trackable by analytics programs. This means the manufacturer can know exactly which product you’re looking at, not just the model, but the serial number itself.

What Can an NFC Tag Do?

  • How to use your kitchen blender? Wave your phone over the NFC tag on the NFC logo on the juice blender. A short how-to video shows up on your phone.
  • No more filters for your water filter? Wave your phone over the NFC tag to get an web page where you can order new supplies.
  • Laptop is dead? Use the NFC tag to get the web page for support information.
  • Christine’s cafe lets customers use free Wifi. They wave their phone over a NFC tag at the counter and logs them in, along with the password.
  • Want feedback from your cafe customers? Put tags on every menu and ask people what they think. The tag opens a feedback form.
  • Friends coming from Seattle? They wave their phone at your door lock. It recognizes them and the door opens. You can set this to expire on Monday 🙂
  • Go to a concert. You use your phone to buy tickets online. At the concert gate, you wave your phone over the gate.
  • How much is left on your NFC metro ticket? Use your phone to read the card and see how much credit you have.
  • Helen wrote a new app. You want to try it; you wave your phone over her business card. The app installs.
  • You’re downtown and you see a poster for a art gallery. How to get there? Wave your phone over the tag and a map opens with directions.
  • At WallyWorld, you get wristbands that have NFC tags. Use these to get into places, on rides, and get food.
  • Cop pulls you over. Your driver’s license has an NFC tag which sends your information to her device.
  • At the supermarket, wave your phone over the checkout. It notes your customer membership and adds a bonus coupon.

NFCs can also carry out actions. An NFC tag can turn off/on the Android’s features. You come home and wave your phone over its docking station. The NFC tag turns on Wifi, turns on music, lowers the screen brightness, turns off the Wifi hotspot, and lowers the ringer volume. At your office desk, another NFC tag configures your phone for the work day. You can do this with the NFC Task Launcher app.

Bulk Use of NFC

The real use of NFC is in bulk application: not just 10-20 or 1,000. It’s when a company puts NFCs on all of its 400,000 blenders. Or when WalMart obligates every manufacturer to use NFC on every relevant product in the store. And every phone can read NFC.

NFC vs QR Codes

QR codes (QR: “Quick Response Code“) are those little squares that you can scan. There’s little practical difference between QR and NFC: Both can send data (URLs, commands, etc.) to your phone. The difference is in how you scan them: you scan QR codes with the camera and you scan NFC tags by holding your phone close to it. As for cost, QR codes have the advantage: they can be created and reproduced for free. The biggest problem for NFC is the limited presence (only a few smart phones, no iPhones, etc.)

qrcode
(Example of a QR code. This points to my personal contact page. I also created NFC tags with this URL. Instead of having to type my email address, you can click the links.)

Limitations to NFC

At the moment (March 2012), only advanced HTC and Samsung phones have NFC chips. Some of the carriers, such as ATT, block NFC. It’s in the phone, but it’s blocked, because if NFC will enable transactions, then ATT wants a percentage. None of the Apple iPhones have this yet. Apple tends wait for new technologies to become established. But it’ll be in iPhones soon. Once again, the US is years behind Japan and other countries, where NFC is developing quickly.

Companies that add NFC tags to their products (kitchen blenders, desktop printers, etc.) will draw attention from consumers with smartphones, who are the most desirable customers (they’re affluent, etc.). This will help to accelerate adoption of NFC.

What’s Important About NFC?

NFC ties your phone to things. Your phone can pick up data from stuff. It increases the power of mobile devices.

Because NFC enables encrypted data transfer, it enables the digital wallet. NFC can replace paper and plastic ID cards and add new functionality, incl. payment, check in, and so on. Your phone becomes your wallet.

Google is developing Google Wallet. VISA is setting up ISIS, a global standard for digital payments. WalMart, Target, and 22 other large retailers are also setting up their own standard.

To keep up with NFC, visit NFC-Forum.org/home/.