It’s a Wallet! It’s a Chip! No, Wait, It’s Your Phone?

Near field communication (NFC) chips might eventually make carrying that giant brick you call a wallet disappear.

The technology behind NFC is really complex and not the subject of this post. However, if you would like to know all of the detailed ins-and-out of how it works, then check out this post: Near Field Communications: A Technology Primer. The idea behind this post is similar to one I recently wrote about QR codes, a nice summary of something complex and new.

But What Are Near Field Communication (NFC) Chips?

To put it simply,

“NFC is an evolution of the RFID technology employed in “contact-less” payment systems such as MasterCard PayPass and Visa PayWave, and is mostly known in the U.S. as a means of enabling wireless payments at retail stores. That’s not all NFC can be used for, though. It can also keep track of gift card and ticketing balances, as well as personal information and consumer preferences.” ~ Jacqui Cheng, Ars Technica

NFC technology has been around since 2003, but it failed to catch. In fact, Sprint introduced a mobile phone with a NFC chip specifically for use on the BART system in San Francisco back in 2008. Unfortunately, it went nowhere. Nokia introduced a phone as well – it was available in the U.S. one year earlier – that failed just the same. In order for NFC technology to take off and be successful, it needs the support of retailers, consumers and mobile device manufacturers alike.

However, I’m sure if a certain company (who dabbles in code and search and some mobile software for mobile products) was really, really interested in this technology, they may first try subsidizing the readers at targeted retail stores. This should help kick-start this next generation in commerce, as there needs to be one reader at every cash register. How many retailers do you know of that would fork over the money to do this?

Should You Care?

Yes. Why? First off, it’s already happening under our noses – Japan has been using NFC for their mass transit system (with a rechargeable smart card). Supposedly the DC Metro (WMATA) andVancouver’s mass transit systems are also considering bids for this technology. Secondly, it stands to replace that kitchen sink you call a wallet, that resides in your back pocket or purse.

The Nexus S, powered by Android 2.3, offers support for NFC in that the hardware inside the phone, as well as the software that runs the phone make it ready for use. By offering this, Google has the competitive advantage over Apple, RIM and Microsoft for NFC-capable devices. Microsoft is even starting to consider putting NFC in the WP7. And while Apple has more applications that are developed for making payments via iPhone, that is not the same as NFC. Making payments through your phone still requires access to the internet and a third party to process the transaction. With an NFC-capable device, the transaction is instant and “contact-less,” meaning the only thing you touch is your phone. As soon as you pass your phone over the reader, the transaction takes less than a few seconds to complete.

You don’t really need to worry about it yet, because NFC most likely won’t be going mainstream anytime soon. The type of testing involved with something as involved as this is going to be heavily monitored by all parties – from developers and manufacturers of the readers on down to the consumers – with code being tweaked and bugs worked out as they go. By the time NFC becomes as common as biometric scanning or facial recognition, these words will have been long forgotten.

In all honesty, I give it about one-and-a-half years before this starts making its way into some of the large metropolitan cities (as far as testing is concerned) and about three years before nationally televised ads start appearing.

When do you think NFC will become mainstream? What are the security implications you foresee?