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.