Mad Dog 21/21: Up Close And Personal
July 16, 2012 Hesh Wiener
When Google unveiled the Nexus 7 tablet computer in June, it couldn’t make calls over a cellular phone network but it could beam financial transactions about a half-inch. The Nexus 7 has a secure data radio based on Near Field Communication (NFC) technology. Nowadays NFC is in a growing number of mobile devices, but that’s not all. NFC makes transit passes like London’s Oysters smart. It is baked into some debit and credit cards. And you can make your very own NFC devices for a buck a pop. They can do some neat tricks.
There’s a lot more to NFC than a small data radio. The NFC peripheral in the Nexus 7 tablet, like the one in Nexus brand clients dating from December 2010 and a host of other mobile phones from various manufacturers, is actually simpler in one way than the NFC technology in a smart transit card or high tech debit card. The mobile client NFC circuitry sits in system that has a power source that’s large compared to the microwatts used by the NFC module. But the NFC stuff inside a smart card doesn’t have a battery. Instead it uses its radio antenna to capture energy from a companion device, such as the radio-equipped turnstile in a transit station. It turns this RF power into juice that fires up the rest of the circuitry, boots up its firmware, and does whatever it is programmed to do.
Because the NFC circuit in an un-powered encapsulation has a full time job looking for electricity, the engineering folk behind this technology decreed that no-power devices will all be half duplex but powered devices that don’t need a parasitic power circuit feeding off the antenna can be full duplex. This small distinction, which can make no-power devices slower than powered ones, becomes important in some applications. Smooth operation of financial transactions or NFC-based door security systems has to be fast to be attractive. The result is that for now at least the kinds of handshaking and validation procedures used with no-power NFC devices (and to a lesser extent even devices with power, like the ones in phones and tablets) have to be fast. Skeptics may argue that this need for speed comes at a price in the form of diminished security, but fans of NFC say that magnetic stripe alternatives like old style credit cards are far more difficult to make secure and just as unforgiving when it comes to the reaction time of the systems used to read the cards.
Currently, NFC cards range in rewriteable memory capacity from under 100 bytes to about 4 KB. The most popular large size in use right now is about 1 KB. The London Oyster card, for example, uses roughly 1 KB of memory and that is more than enough to store the card’s retained cash value, some data about current and recent travel and possibly some identification that can tie a registered card to the owner’s Oyster system transit account. Oyster card circuits are made by NXP Semiconductor and sold under its Mifare brand, which calls the cards 1 KB but provides free Android apps that confess to available capacity that’s more like 75 percent of the unformatted space. While this isn’t much nonvolatile RAM, it turns out to be plenty for the millions of transit riders using NFC cars. (Like everything else computer, NFC circuit storage capacity will grow over time and the user organizations will find ways to use that larger memory and then keep asking for even more.)
If the NFC radio lives in a bank card, the chip might be similar to the one in a transit card but with some variations demanded by the financial world and various regulatory authorities. In a bank’s NFC circuitry there is encrypted data with information about the card owner, potentially much more than just a card number and some kind of PIN. And in some emerging applications, such as the NFC-equipped ID bracelets that are finding their way into the crowd management systems of amusement parks and festival venues, there is room to store a tally of the bearer’s activity along with a description of the bearer’s rights and privileges based on, for example, the admission price paid.
Some very different applications are the ones that hobbyists set up using NFC stickers, typically round or square pieces of plastic with adhesive backs. The information recorded in these stickers might have an intro that tells a mobile phone with an NFC transceiver that what follows is a new bunch of personal settings for the phone. The owner’s phone will be loaded with an app that detects NFC cards and looks for one of a number of purpose headers. If it sees a setting header it will use the data that follows to adjust the phone. The NFC hobbyist might have a sticker on his night table that turns off a phone’s ringing sound except for calls from an emergency answering service (if the owner is a doctor, a first responder or somebody else that sometimes has to be on call around the clock). Whoever has a sticker like that might have one near a light switch or doorway that puts a phone waved over it into awake mode with normal ringtones and so on. A sticker in a car might tell the phone to turn on Bluetooth or the car might have two, one on the dash for settling in, one near the door for checking out.
This may seem silly but the concept is the same as the one used in watch clocks, except in the case of NFC stickers the communications device is the mobile client and the static device is a sticker. Watch clocks are tied to communications networks and the key or ID card the clock reads is kept by the party who is on rounds. What makes this possible is not just NFC but other technology in mobile clients that can tie events triggered by an NFC tap with environmental data like geolocation results and interactive apps that create a conversation between the person on the beat and a monitoring and support server.
Because Google has been so enthusiastic about NFC it’s a part of the Nexus S phone (circa 2010 but still able to run the Ice Cream Sandwich variant of Android Linux) and the Galaxy Nexus, and it is bound to be a part of the Nexus Next or whatever Google calls the smartphone people expect it to launch later this year or in early 2013. So if you want a device that can read, write, re-write, write protect, react to, and otherwise do all the things NFC can do, one starting point is the Google Play Store, which sells Galaxy Nexus phones and Nexus 7 tablets. Every Windows 8 phone from every vendor will include NFC circuitry. The high end Samsung phones, the Galaxy III and some versions last year’s Galaxy II, pack NFC circuitry. But NFC is not just for the high end users. LG offers a low cost CDMA phone through Virgin that packs an NFC wallop. Sony has phones with NFC, too. But don’t let this article limit you. Go where all the other NFC buffs go, the phone list published by NFC World.
When you have a phone you’ll want to fool around with some NFC stickers or some NFC-loaded business cards or some NFC bracelets or key fobs or maybe some of the other NFC items, a few of them pretty eccentric, that are out there in mobile geek land. You can search for this stuff but if you’re lazy here are some starting points: Just to get starter nothing could be easier of cheaper than tagsfordroid.com. Tagstand has stuff that’s kind of commercial but still is user friendly enough for newbies. Want to get a bunch of stickers or badges for your next meeting? Buynfcstickers.com has the goods. If you want to see the limits of imagination, check out the assortment of NFC stuff offered by buynfctags.com. If you look into this you will see that there are NFC devices built into lots of things including weatherproof plastic tags, and tags with special backings that let you use NFC on top of metal (which would interfere with garden variety NFC stickers). There are circuits you can temporarily lock, permanently lock or never lock at all.
If you are a meeting kind of person, there are nametags that can simultaneously inform you in text, in QR and with the touch of a device beam out a vCard that your NFC phone app will recognize and add to your contacts. If you are a typical Android user your contacts will be synched with Google and when you get back to your computer all the people whose tags or bracelets you tapped with your phone will be added to your roster of business or personal contacts. If your corporate apps aren’t already set up to take advantage of contact and sales lead data coming in from end users’ devices, now is the time to put this stuff on the front burner.
Whatever you want to do or learn about, NFC, like so many other things in the mobile universe, comes with lots of apps. The Android apps that let you read, write, launch functions and do other things with NFC are free from outfits like NXP, which is a major supplier of NFC circuits. There are also some free or cheap apps from other sources including various developers and companies that want to add NFC friendly features to the server side apps and cloud services they offer. The first place to look for general purpose apps is the Google Play Store. You might also want do to some web searches. Google may be the outfit behind the Play Store and the kind of search but it hasn’t persuaded us that its Play Store search is anywhere near as well implemented as its general search engine.
Apple doesn’t offer NFC on the iPhone so there are no apps for now but it’s very likely the next iPhone and future iPads include NFC technology, at which time there will be apps in the store. The way things are shaping up, Microsoft and Google are going to be very big on NFC. If Apple doesn’t join in, it could end up giving back the territory in business markets it has gained during the past few years. And NFC isn’t strictly for companies that are in the device game as a major part of their operations. Amazon, which has made tablets important but not central to its success, might nevertheless have to consider NFC for the next generation of Kindles . . . if it doesn’t want its tablets to be painted into the e-reader corner or locked out of the business world. I don’t expect a giant e-tailer like Amazon to ignore any technology that ties people and their interests to the purchase of goods and services, but even Jeff Bezos misses the boat once in a while.
I also expect the PC makers to start putting NFC in their computers; at least all the ones users can easily lift. One almost irresistible argument in favor of adding NFC: It is so cheap there’s really no reason not to offer it. End users thinking about NFC applications may well come to the same conclusion. It’s here, it works, it’s cheap. Its time is ripe, just like the NFC Oyster-packing rush hour riders of the London Tube.