What is NFC? – Definition Near-Field Communications

I know you’ve been hearing the hype around it (if not, there’s something you’re not doing right when following mobile news), but I’m not sure all of you know what it is. So let’s get cracking:
  • What is NFC (short for Near-Field Communications) ?
Well, as with any question that starts with “what is”, Wikipedia comes to the rescue:
Near field communication, or NFC, is a set of short-range wireless technologies, typically requiring a distance of 4 cm or less. NFC operates at 13.56 MHz and at rates ranging from 106 kbit/s to 848 kbit/s. NFC always involves an initiator and a target; the initiator actively generates an RF field that can power a passive target. This enables NFC targets to take very simple form factors such as tags, stickers, key fobs, or cards that do not require batteries. NFC peer-to-peer communication is also possible, where both devices are powered.
Main things to keep in mind: Only ONE of the communicating devices NEEDS power, (but both might have). The frequencies and speeds are not that important right now.. just keep in mind its data transfer speed is slower than Bluetooth, if you want a comparison, but not by that much..
  • So how do these devices work? (skip this if you’re not interested)
Let’s look at the operational modes, which is important in order to get a better undertanding of what we can do with NFC.There are two modes: 

  • Passive Communication Mode: The Initiator device provides a carrier field and the target device answers by modulating the existing field. In this mode, the Target device may draw its operating power from the Initiator-provided electromagnetic field, thus making the Target device a transponder
  • Active Communication Mode: Both Initiator and Target device communicate by alternately generating their own fields. A device deactivates its RF field while it is waiting for data. In this mode, both devices typically have power supplies.
Ok good, by now things should have started making more sense. So let’s start looking at the really interesting part… 
  • Why all the hype? What can we do with it?
Well, sky’s the limit as is usually the case with every emerging technology, but here are some specific uses for NFC:
  • Card emulation: the NFC device behaves like an existing contactless card (think transit passes, etc)
  • Reader mode: the NFC device is active and reads a passive RFID tag, for example for interactive advertising (this would KILL/OWN QR codes)
  • P2P mode: two NFC devices communicating together and exchanging information (e.g. file / data transfer – would give a whole new meaning to “giving” files to other users)
These are the general 1-way (first 2) / 2-way (the 3rd) communication modes, so depending on your idea you just pick the appropriate one for application.
  • Can my phone get NFC?

Short Answer: Yes (but NO chances are it doesn’t have it already at the time of writing this).
Longer Answer: Yes, it is, but under certain conditions and with some limitations. NFC requires both hardware, as well as software modifications, so you can’t just download an NFC application to your phone, if that’s what you had in mind. However, there are both NFC stickers (passive) and also much more promising microSD NFC devices, so they would go in your phone’s microSD slot (if it has one).

So you might not be able to do everything you had in mind with your current handset (but you might depending on the model / availability + capabilities afforded by the available hardware).
  • What about existing technologies? What will happen to RFID and Bluetooth?
Well, NFC comes to fill a slightly different gap than Bluetooth, so no it’s not aiming to replace Bluetooth (though it might I would say). It’s aim is actually rather than different, and that is to complement Bluetooth and ‘fix’ everything that’s ‘bad’ about it – i.e. the long discovery / pairing process.

The idea is that NFC will be used for pairing, and Bluetooth will then take care of the wireless data transfer. This makes a very interesting case for Bluetooth Marketing, as you can imagine, as the main criticism towards it has been the way it can be used as SPAM.

Also note that some existing RFID readers, can have their software upgraded to support NFC, so the technology for it is already out there…

For now, we’ll all just have to wait for the handset manufacturers and more importantly the Mobile Network Operators (who are currently keeping the appearance of NFC chips in mobile phones on hold) to sort it all out … 
Giorgos started Mobile-Marketing-Blog.net in 2008. Since then, he's been developing technology solutions for Mobile Marketing and Mobile Messaging, so he's closely keeping track of everything happening in the space, sharing the interesting stuff he comes across.

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