Changes in iOS-13 to boost NFC popularity
Apple Pay brought NFC new public attention but only reinforced the association of NFC with payment apps. With the release of iOS-13, 2019 may be the game-changing year for NFC. In this latest release, Apple opens up access to the full range of NFC capabilities on iPhones. Why is this an important evolution? What new app opportunities does this create? Does this represent an opportunity for NFC to become a “universal” technology in the eyes of mobile users?
NFC and the mobile
Near Field Communication finds its origins in a set of technologies that were developed for contactless smart cards. These technologies were essentially, but not exclusively designed for use in secure applications such as payments, transportation, access control and personal identification.
Foreseeing the role mobiles would play in daily life, industrial players set out to ensure the place of these contactless technologies. They regrouped them under a common standard called Near Field Communication aimed at ensuring interoperability whether implemented in simple passive devices (cards and tags) or more complex systems like card-readers and mobiles.
In its earliest uses, NFC simply allowed the mobile to be used as a substitute for contactless smart cards. An NFC-equipped mobile, however, is much more than a smart card. It benefits from three complementary modes of operation:
Card emulation: The mobile acts as a contactless smart card. This is the most common mode for NFC in payment and transportation applications.
Reader: The mobile plays the role of a tag reader. It can read a tag or a smart card (such as an ID card or passport). This mode offers a range of potential new applications when mobiles connect to other equipment or appliances.
Peer-to-peer: Two mobiles can establish a secure, symmetric communication with each other. A typical application is for exchanging files such as contact information.
NFC’s challenges with mobile manufacturers
NFC’s conquest of the mobile market has been gradual and largely invisible to mobile users. NFC was present as early as 2010, but not universally on Android mobiles. Android mobiles did adopt NFC’s full capabilities rapidly. Here we saw the emergence of NFC – Bluetooth pairing apps. However, with the slow adoption of mobiles for payments, NFC lacked the killer app that would bring it significant public attention.
IOS began adoption later and advanced incrementally. Apple started with NFC features that they could sell as services. NFC first appeared on iPhone-5s in 2015, but was reserved exclusively for Apple Pay. From iPhone-7 (iOS-11) to iPhone XS/XR (iOS-12), Apple gradually opened some possibilities to read NFC tags. This enabled marketing apps such as launching web sites by reading a product tag. Apple, however chose to keep a tight rein on access to NFC commands and the possibility to write data to tags.
The June 4th, 2019 announcement of iOS-13 may be an unleashing point for NFC. IOS now removes restrictions on writing information to tags. Combined with dynamic NFC tags, this opens new opportunities for NFC to finally show off its unique advantages.
Unique characteristics tied to a one-of-a-kind technology
Among wireless technologies (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, LoRa, etc.), NFC is one-of-a-kind. It is based on an “active” device (a mobile or reader) and a “passive” device (a tag or card). A mobile (in reader mode) provides power and a low-frequency (13.56 MHz) radio channel called a carrier signal. An NFC tag is dormant in the absence of this signal. It is mute until the mobile is within a few centimetres and emitting a carrier signal. The tag does not emit its own signal. It simply modulates the mobile’s carrier signal.
NFC derives two unique characteristics from this:
A Short range of only a few centimetres. This may be seen as a severe limitation. However, it is an advantage for security – for example, when pairing a mobile to communicate with another appliance. The principle is simple. The user’s mobile has to be very close to the NFC tag on the appliance. This makes it impossible to confuse the desired appliance with a similar appliance in the same environment. This also reduces opportunity for eavesdropping thus diminishing risks of a man-in-the-middle attack.
Reduced energy consumption and unwanted radio emissions. The tag does not emit its own signal. It uses the mobile’s signal when present. Used alone or with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, there is no need to emit periodic advertising signals that consume energy, pollute, and that may draw unwanted hackers’ attention.
These characteristics are essential for NFC’s primary target applications in payment, transportation and access control. For mobiles, these characteristics are also very pertinent when NFC complements other technologies (ex. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi) for pairing and securing mobile-to-appliance communications.
Where is NFC used with mobiles?
Many NFC applications have been demonstrated on mobiles, but its successes have been with the card emulation and reader modes. NFC’s first success was in supplanting smart cards with mobiles. Mobiles like smart cards include secure electronic components (a.k.a. secure elements) and are present everywhere in our daily lives. It was only logical that the most popular smart card applications (payment and transport) would quickly become key applications for NFC mobiles. Payment services initially offered by Apple, Google and Samsung are today being duplicated by bank-specific solutions. Transportation solutions based on NFC are spreading in all countries following initial successes in Asia. Soon, having a set of cards in your wallet will be ‘has been’ – all replaced by one mobile.
The Reader mode has seen less success than card emulation. Even though NFC mobiles can read and write data contained in an NFC tag, this mode finds itself in competition with cheap but static barcodes and QR codes. While QR codes beat NFC tags on initial cost, this thinking ignores NFC advantages:
Aesthetic – tags can visually be made to look like anything, to project brand image, to integrate product packaging and thus meet consumer’s aesthetic expectations.
Durable – QR codes can be erased, damaged, or hidden. NFC tags protect. Tags can even be placed behind plastic shielding in severe industrial environments.
Modifiable – Data in tags is re-writeable. A user, with the appropriate access permissions, can update them. For example, an NFC tag might contain the WEP key for the Wi-Fi hotspot at a café. Patrons tap the tag with their mobile to initiate the connection with the correct WEP. The owner can easily, periodically update the WEP on the tag to reduce risks of hacking.
Dynamic – With its memory (EEPROM or other memory buffer), an NFC tag can act as a data relay between a mobile and another processor, provided the tag has a second interface for the processor.
Dynamic tags open new NFC opportunities
The principle of dynamic tags consists of using a buffer where information can be written and read by two or more devices. The buffer can be the tag’s internal non-volatile EEPROM (or a volatile memory, if one is available). The buffer becomes a sharing point for an external device (a mobile for example) and a processor that also has access via a conventional serial interface (I2C being the most common from tags). This mechanism simulates bidirectional communication between the mobile and the processor.
The two-way communication capabilities of NFC Dynamic tags can turn mobiles into Human Machine Interfaces (HMI) for systems, equipment and appliances. Compared to Bluetooth Low Energy, or Wi-Fi, NFC offers advantages based on its very short range. However, all of this hinges on the mobile’s ability to write and to read data to tags.
NFC clearly does not fit every use case. However there are some specific cases that are, in particular enabled by NFC dynamic tags:
NFC secure pairing of Bluetooth or Wi-Fi
3-Stroke configuration of equipment via NFC
If you are going to use your mobile as an HMI for equipment and appliances, NFC is a secure and intuitive means for establishing a temporary, secure local connection with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. NFC takes over and automates a series of actions in a way that is perfectly transparent for the user. With a simple gesture, NFC:
Launches the appropriate application on the mobile
Wakes up available Bluetooth or Wi-Fi channels (which start emitting advertising signals)
Authenticates and builds encryption keys for the session
Pairs the Bluetooth or Wi-Fi channel
Switches to the secured Bluetooth or Wi-Fi channel
These actions greatly facilitate and secure the implementation for the end-user. The disadvantage of “staying close” to communicate with NFC is replaced by the comfort offered by the increased range of Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. The complexities of setting up Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connections are reduced by NFC to a simple gesture that literally takes about 2 seconds.
If you are verifying or updating equipment configurations, an NFC Tag used alone can be a powerful, efficient and cost effective communication channel. However, when using NFC, you quickly realize that keeping the mobile against a device to communicate is not practical. This is especially true if you have to do anything on the mobile during the communication. NFC 3-Stroke configuration apps reduce configurations to a simple, intuitive process:
Acquire: Approach the mobile to the NFC tag to launch the app and acquire the equipment’s current configuration.
Modify: Take the mobile back. Review the acquired configuration information and make any necessary modifications to parameters on the mobile.
Update: Approach the mobile to the NFC tag again to transfer the revised configuration parameters to the equipment.
Acquisition (reading data) and Update (writing data) are generally quite fast. This is just the duration of the gestures of approaching the mobile to the tag and bringing it back. This simple gesture is where we see NFC’s advantages:
The selection of the equipment is intuitive and simple. There is no need to ‘scan’ for, or select an available connection.
The mobile and the desired equipment are paired and their connection is secured automatically.
The appropriate application is launched automatically.
The equipment does not emit advertising signals that increase in power consumption and unnecessary emissions.
In this scenario, NFC advantages overs BLE or Wi-Fi include:
Economies in material investment and energy consumption
Decreases in unwanted, excessive radio emissions
Improved security and discretion
Improved convenience in establishing and securing the connection, and launching apps
Unleashing the opportunities of dynamic NFC tags
Dynamic tags have been around for more than five years. In spite of their potential, they remain under used. The main obstacle has been that the most powerful features of NFC were not available under iOS. The usefulness of dynamic tags hinges on the ability to write data to the tag.
For companies previously considering NFC for mobile connectivity in their products, only addressing Android mobiles significantly reduced their potential market. This has been especially unacceptable for consumer products for which it is imperative to provide equivalent solutions for iOS and Android. Not to mention that an Android-only solution moves a product away from the iPhone world. This could be perceived as an alignment with “low cost” – something manufacturers typically seek to avoid.
Clearly, Apple’s decision to open up access to NFC on iPhone is a crucial step to bringing new apps to mobiles that are based on NFC Dynamic tags. By allowing tag writing, iOS and Android mobile users can expect to see the same behaviour when using NFC. Companies using NFC (whether for pairing or bi-directional communication) in their products will now be able to offer the same end-user experience to all mobile users. With NFC, that end-user experience is simple, intuitive, secure… and now “dynamic.”
About the author:
Francis Lamotte is the CEO of IoTize – www.iotize.com