Near field communications looks like it is making mobile devices more powerful - if operators can figure out how to use it.
With GSM, 3G, Bluetooth, and (increasingly) WiFi, along with FM, DAB and/or TV receivers, you might think phones already had all the radios they could hold. But there's another one that could get overlooked.
Near Field Communications (NFC) is a close cousin to the vestigial radios used in contactless payment systems and passive RFID tags - the kind used by supermarkets to track crates of goods in their supply chain. They don't provide power, and communicates a limited amount of information stored on the tag.
Travellers in London use this to pay for bus and Tube journeys with the well-known Oyster card, a contact-less cash system. The card, which can be "topped up" in London shops, is so much more efficient that Transport for London is driving out cash by making Oyster fares much cheaper.
Making the phone into a wallet
Putting an NFC chip on a phone would be a simple move, and would allow it to be used as a wallet for electronic cash, much like the Oyster card.
It may be obvious, but phone makers aren't that sure how quickly to do it. Two years ago, ABI Research reckoned half the phones in the world would be NFC-enabled by 2009. There have been few signs of NFC phones in the real world - except Nokia's 3220 which is provoking some discussion - and ABI has slashed the prediction. Now we're expecting NFC to ship on 23 percent of phones in 2010. This is still substantial of course; the 30 percent it forecasts for 2011 represents 450 million phones.
What's it for?
The hesitation is due to the short-sightedness of mobile operators, according to some. "Carriers are to some degree stuck in a particular mindset," says ABI principal analyst Stuart Carlaw. "They believe that they need to recoup the cost of adding NFC to phones through the provision of contactless payment services alone. ABI Research believes that this is view is too narrow."
NFC on a phone has the advantage of an intelligent device that can do a lot more than contactless payment. And it doesn't have to be passive, but it can use the phone's power to initiate communications.
For example, as well as paying for a bus ride an NFC phone could plan a user's route, if passed over tags - perhaps on a map - on the bus stop. It could have a lot of applications, both in the consumer mass market, and the more esoteric electronic world of the business user.
Manchester City Football Club is trying out NFC for electronic tickets. So far only a handful of fans have the Nokia phones, but the club will test the ability to send information to the phone as well as use it to operate turnstiles.
Other applications could involve picking up a URL or other information from a poster. "The phone is the reader and instead of being directed manually to a web site, the poster could connect the phone directly, to transmit news, Java applets or whatever," says Heikki Huomo, chief technology officer of NFC equipment maker Innovision. "It could also serve to initiate calls."
NFC could be a way to linking two devices, perhaps streamlining pairing over Bluetooth or ultra wideband. "Two phones would touch to set up a connection, then a business card could be transmitted over Bluetooth or WiFi," says Huomo, who before coming to Innovision, introduced Nokia's NFC phone, as head of research there.
That idea could be extended to work with other devices such as printers, either in public kiosks or in office, says Huomo. Pass your laptop or phone over the printer, and it will get a short-term password and WPA key to print wirelessly.
Integration's what you need
The barriers to putting NFC in devices could come down if the technology is integrated into other chipsets, perhaps included with Bluetooth or WiFi, says Huomo, who predicts a Bluetooth/NFC hybrid this year.
The NFC Forum has published standards for NFC devices, based on the ISO 18092 standard. NFC itself goes back to early work from Philips' contactless payment technology MiFare and Sony's FeliCa, which the two companies combined, to create a standard that is backward compatible with both technologies. NFC operates in the 13.56 MHz frequency range, over a typical distance of a few centimetres.
Like many other technologies, NFC could ultimately be part of the furniture, around us and un-noticed. But it is just reaching the stage were some intelligence is needed to develop applications, put them into use, and convince the industry that this is more than just a nice idea.