Exploring Near Field Communication (NFC)

The Android world is abuzz with NFC! It’s been quietly supported since the Gingerbread release but seems to have come alive now that ICS (Android 4.x) is finally being shipped on new devices. So what is NFC and what is it for?

NFC is as I’m sure you know, an acronym for Near Field Communication. It allows communication between devices over extremely short distances (a few centimeters) and is intended to allow a very simple exchange of data between NFC devices. There are two types of NFC device: powered devices (e.g., Androids) and unpowered devices known as “tags.” Applications of the technology include contactless payments, short-range data exchange and a wide-variety of apps with functionality triggered by proximity to a tag.

The big driver to NFC enable devices is I’m sure from those promoting contact-less payment systems. Google in particular are promoting their Google Wallet which enables users to store details of their payment cards within the Google Wallet service and then make payments simply by passing their phone across an NFC enabled reading device. The attraction for users is that they can make purchases very quickly using a device (their phone) which is nearly always within reach. The potential of a quick and reliable mechanism to purchase everything from transit tickets through soft-drinks to the weekly shopping by just passing your phone over a reader is huge. In case you are wondering what Google get out of it: well they say it’s just a small charge on each transaction. I wonder what a small charge on millions of transactions per day adds up to?

What about those tags I mentioned earlier? Well here is a simple scenario for how they might be used. Here in the UK it is common to pay for parking with your phone. That may sound great but users of the various services know only too well that it is a tedious and time-consuming business. So, instead of typing endless numbers into your phone, the signs at the parking locations could have an NFC tag on them. When you park, simply pass your phone over the tag and Android will launch the parking app having determined the paring location from the information provided by the tag. The user then keys in the time they wish to park for (I’m assuming they set the registration/licence plate information previously) and parking is paid for. If they don’t yet have the right app, that’s okay–the NFC data can be used to trigger a download from the Play store.

The next year or so is likely to bring some exciting applications in and around NFC. If you are interested in the topic, it’s covered in a new Learning Tree course: Building Android™ Applications: Extended Features.

Mike Way

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