Three NFC news items caught my attention - Periodicals by Sunil (#1)

Greetings everyone,

Through a series of blogs and dialogues here, my goal is to weave a community of bright developers who are willing to collaborate cross domains to deliver end-to-end Near Field Communication (NFC) usages.

Three NFC news items recently caught my attention, and I’ll like to hear your perspective on each.

A)      Lastest iPhone didn’t launch with NFC as a feature

B)      NFC Forum reorganized its Eco-System committee into several vertical SIGs

C)      Win8 launched (formally today) with innate support for what Microsoft calls ‘Near Field Proximity’

Before we discuss these, let’s take a bird’s eye view of NFC:

NFC is a radio that operates at 13.56MHz and doesn’t require any discovery or pairing like Bluetooth or WiFi radios do; rather a ‘good faith’ instant connection is allowed when two NFC devices comes within few centimeters of each other’s vicinity. With one tap gesture you can do something cool – pay, get paid, connect, pair, share, transfer, login, lock, un-lock,... anything! With Felica - a precursor to NFC, Japanese eco-system has proven that when such instant connectivity is used for critical data exchange, it can be successfully monetized. Just for contactless ticketing & transit usages, about 30 Million smartphones are tapped everyday in train stations in Japan. It is estimated that >1 Million NFC capable smartphones are shipping every week since mid-2012.

And probably we don’t even realize, but over the last two decades numerous contactless smartcards, IDs, badges, tags, and Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFIDs) have silently permeated our daily lives. Many of these legacy technologies that are suitable for sensing within about 20 centimeters distance are now converging to a standard NFC specification via the NFC Forum. NFC specification allows three modes of operation – a) card-emulation, b) reader-writer, and c) peer-to-peer. NFC devices can be ‘active’ like smartphones or PCs, and ‘passive’ like NFC stickers or smartcards. During a near field proximity transaction, at least one of the devices is expected to be active that is further expected to energize its passive counterpart, transferring power via their resonant antennae. If you are interested in reading more, the Android developer site provides a good primer on NFC and describes two major use cases:  a) Reading data from an NFC Tag, and b) Beaming data from one NFC device to another using ‘Android Beam’.

Back to the three news items… the day iPhone5 was announced, I was delivering a talk on NFC at the Intel’s Developer Forum (IDF) in San Francisco on the same afternoon. You can well imagine the reaction of my audience knowing that iPhone5 didn’t support NFC. Apple probably didn’t find NFC usages compelling, smooth or monetizable enough. But hey, who cares? Why couldn’t consumers simply glue a ‘passive’ NFC sticker on the back of their phone and associate to any ‘active’ NFC devices. Well, that’s one approach, but you have to be ready to sacrifice a large number of eWallet usages that require an active NFC integrated in the mobile device. For example, loyalty rewards and coupons exchange, several types of credit card payments, secured access usages requiring credentials exchange, and proximity usages requiring dynamic data exchange…. please note that I’ll be delving deeper into some of these use case studies in my future blogs at this site, so feel free to start discussing.

Reflecting on NFC Forum’s recent decision to re-structure the eco-system committee into a SIG committee overseeing industry verticals; five verticals namely consumer electronics, payments, retail, health care, and transport have been identified. Probably it is a good move. Remember NFC is about device-to-device interconnectivity, and that by definition requires cross domain delivery of user experiences. This restructuring at the NFC Forum ratifies the mindset that unless NFC players and developers focus on verticals, carefully delivering end-to-end user experience, NFC won’t fly. There are very few developers today who work across devices and domains. For example, for a practical monetizable ‘enterprise secured access’ use case, NFC solution might entail provisioning of employee credentials and applets in several phones with different operating systems and makes, and programming of several NFC readers at entry points attached to several PCs and cloud. Very quickly developer of this seemingly simple use case could run into a complex matrix of technologies. If there is enough interest from the readers, I’ll like to analyze this use case in one of the future blogs, please drop me a line.

On to Win8, Microsoft may be targeting NFC as a vehicle to set up peripheral wireless devices on PC with a single tap-n-pair action; and to interconnect adhoc wireless devices easily, almost with single “tap-n-do” action. This opens a new market, especially for the developers who provide embedded solutions to device makers. I found Microsoft Near Field Proximity specification a good read and it enumerates seven specific use cases:

Use case

Description

Tap and Setup

Tap and pair and set up a peripheral wireless device with Windows

Tap and Reconnect

Tap and reconnect a previously paired and set-up device with Windows

Tap and Use

Tap and connect your app with one running on another machine

Tap and Launch

Tap and invite a user on another machine to launch an app you’re running

Tap and Acquire

Tap and invite a user on another machine to obtain an app you’re running

Tap and Send

Tap and send content you have selected to another device

Tap and Receive

Tap and receive content from another device or poster

I believe good monetization opportunities for NFC developers will emerge from secured access, eCommerce and usages that combine the two. Classically these usages have been tight vertical business models; standardization around NFC posits a new opportunity to horizontalize. What are your thoughts?

We are making sure that Intel platforms are natively instrumented with secured manageability engines and we provide dynamic adaptation layer SDKs and tools to Intel developers. We also provide NFC integration guidelines to device makers. Interested developers could easily write applets that are global platform compliant. I will go into the specifics and cover the nuances of some interesting use cases in future blogs here, so stay tuned.

At Intel as well as in the NFC Forum, I strongly advocate building of an NFC Firewall. Through a simple keylogger attack launched on the pretext of exchanging a business card, small photo, or power point, I have demonstrated how an open NFC port makes devices vulnerable to ‘good faith’ attacks. I believe NFC community must build a Signature RTD, NFC Firewall and Trusted Host Interface sooner than later; lest this technology gets stigmatized. Plugging this security hole could certainly be a great opportunity for some smart developers!

Until next time,

Cheers!

-Sunil

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