By now, you're probably somewhat familiar with Near Field Communications (NFC) technology. And when you hear the term NFC, the first thing that comes to mind is probably mobile payments.
That's understandable, as NFC and mobile payments have been grouped together by analysts, pundits, researchers and retailers since the short-range wireless technology first started making headlines in the early 2000s. (The first mobile phone with built-in NFC, the Nokia 6131, launched in 2007.)
But the truth is NFC has a lot more to offer than just mobile payments. In fact, it will very likely be years before any sort of NFC-based payment system goes mainstream, according to a new report from technology research firm Forrester Research. Though Forrester predicts 100 million NFC-enabled mobile devices will ship this year, the company says NFC won't reach critical mass, or be used by 15 percent to 25 percent of the global population, for at least three to five years.
"We see NFC as merely a technology enabler for several types of mobile contactless services; we don't believe the majority of consumers will use mobile contactless payments before the end of the decade, even in the most developed countries like Poland and the UK," writes Forrester's Analyst Thomas Husson in the report, entitled "NFC: What Lies Beyond Contactless Payments."
So how exactly will NFC be used in those hundreds of millions of smartphones during the coming years? Here's a look at Forrester's predicted NFC uses along with examples of current, real-world ways that's NFC is already employed by enterprises, governments, academic organisations, marketers, retailers and consumers.
NFC in the enterprise
NFC is currently being tested by a variety of organizations who want to use smartphones as next-generation access cards, which would be an ideal use of the technology in the enterprise. In fact, in the fall of 2011, BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion and HID Global, a provider of secure physical access cards and readers, announced that some of RIM's new BlackBerrys would be equipped with HID Global's iCLASS digital credentials.
The NFC BlackBerry Bold and Curve models are compatible with HID Global's iCLASS readers, which are widely used to enable physical access systems in buildings, as well as serve as student ID readers and track employee time-clock check-ins and attendance.
Employees could also use NFC-enabled smartphones and other devices to access staff parking areas or cafeterias and pay for services, Forrester says. NFC tags could be placed inside meeting or conference rooms, and attendees could tap their compatible devices to silence them or to turn on Wi-Fi, for example.
NFC and government
NFC also represents countless opportunities for governments to improve public services and enhance transit systems, among other things, Forrester says.
Some cities and urban areas are already using NFC to better serve their citizens and improve quality of life. NFC technology could let bus travelers pay for their commutes to work with their mobile devices. Commuters who drive to work could access parking lots and pay for parking with their smartphones. And city residents could get access to public facilities, such as swimming pools or libraries, with a tap of a tablet.
France's Association Francais Du Sans Contact Mobile (AFSCM), or Association for Mobile Contactless in France, is ahead of the curve when it comes to NFC-based services. And in Europe, France ranks among the top countries based on the number of citizens with NFC-enable phones, according to the group. AFSCM expects 2.5 million French citizens to have NFC devices by the end of 2012. The French "Cityzi" service lets users in certain French locales to quickly scan their handhelds to access train stations and tap their devices against NFC tags placed in a variety of locations to get maps or other information on products or services.
The city of San Francisco currently has some 30,000 NFC-compatible parking meters. And Sydney, Australia is using NFC tags to help guide tourists around one of its most popular landmark districts, The Rocks.
NFC and the retail shopping experience
NFC also promises to expand and enhance the modern retailer shopping experience, according to Forrester, via a combination of wireless coupons, loyalty cards and payment options.
From the Forrester report:
"NFC tags placed on product shelves will enable consumers to access more personalized information about products when scanning them with an app that integrates their personal profile; for example, if you're allergic to nuts, the product scan could automatically detect if the product contained nuts and alert you...Tap-for-information, tap-to-add-to-basket, tap-for-coupons, and other new usage scenarios will have an increasing impact on the retail industry."
A "Digital Gumball Machine" from advertising firm Razorfish is just one quirky example of how NFC could transform the modern shopping experience. The machine dispenses a variety of digital goods, including song downloads, movies, e-book and location-specific coupons to users after they feed it a few coins and tap it with their compatible NFC devices.
NFC and marketing
NFC technology has far-reaching implication for modern marketers.
For example, users with NFC phones can quickly wave their devices over NFC-enabled flyers, advertisements, billboards or movie posters to instantly collect additional information on products or service.
Businesses can place NFC tags in the entrances to their stores so users can check-in automatically on social networks like foursquare or Facebook, or share details or "Likes" with friends. The Walibi amusement park in Belgium recently rolled out a first-of-its-kind NFC-based system called Walibi Connect that lets users scan NFC-enabled bracelets to automatically send updates and Likes of events and attraction at the amusement park to their Facebook pages. The system also rewards frequent users with badges and other achievements based on NFC check-ins.
On the food service side, bars and restaurants can order NFC enabled drink coasters and other promotional materials from a company called RadipNFC so patrons can scan them and get more information on the business or advertisers.
NFC and device-to-device sharing, collaboration
NFC can also be used as a short-range technology to beam files and other content between devices that are close to each other. The functionality could be great for collaboration in corporate environments when sharing documents or for multiplayer gaming.
The popular NFC-enabled Samsung Galaxy S III, and a number of additional new NFC Android phones use a feature called Android Beam to send data back and forth between compatible devices via NFC.
Zynga, a virtual poker game for Android, uses NFC-based Android Beam to let users tap their smartphones or tablets together to play live multiplayer online poker.
More opportunities for NFC
Various universities across the globe are also investigating the potential of NFC. The University of San Francisco is currently using an NFC-based system called One Card for student building access, including dorms and eating facilities, meal payments and laundry costs, among other things.
For air travel, airlines including Alaska Airlines is experimenting with NFC for boarding passes and security access.
For concerts, Samsung is working on a system that will let concert goers access shows and events using NFC instead of traditional paper tickets.
In the auto industry, BMW has built an NFC-enabled car key that can not only unlock an automobile, but also eventually help you book and access hotels room while you're traveling.
NFC may be an emerging technology, but it is emerging at a rapid pace. Over the next five years, expect NFC to transform the way we travel, purchase goods and communicate with each other.