No Flippin’ Clue About NFC? Fear not!

29 Jul 2014

NFC (near field communications) is a type of wireless technology that is becoming increasingly common in a number of products and devices. It is built into modern smartphones and plastic bank cards and also integrated with payment kiosks and checkouts at retail outlets and other venues throughout the UK and the rest of the world.

You may already have it at your disposal without even knowing about its presence, especially if you are new to the concept of NFC and it all seems a little mysterious. So to answer any questions you might have, here is a look at the underpinnings of this emerging payment and communications system, covering what it does and why you should care.

Underlying Infrastructure

At its core, NFC is a simple, short-range means of transferring data from one electronic device to another. It is efficient enough to work without requiring a battery to be built into the item within which the chip is contained, while flexible enough to still operate as long as the link is being established over a short distance — usually a couple of centimetres or less.

NFC can be used to make payments for a variety of products and services, as well as engage with tags that transfer other bits of data across, performing a similar function to QR codes but with none of that annoying image capture involved.

While NFC is primarily deployed at shops and within travel interchanges, it is expected to eventually emerge as something which people can use around the home. And as the Internet of Things develops, it will become all the more influential as a means of allowing devices to identify those that can communicate with one another.

Mobile Matters

In the mobile world, NFC behaves very much like it does when built into bank cards, but with the added bonus of being tied into a gadget that can harness the technology for much more than just making contactless payments.

NFC uniquely identifies the user of a device and provides a direct link to your current account, effectively digitising your wallet. The idea is that if you want to pay for something you can tap your phone against a compatible till and the correct amount will be charged to your bank.

Of course, ultimately the goal is to render the traditional wallet, containing physical coins, notes and even debit or credit cards, redundant. Once every consumer owns a smartphone with an NFC chip built in, being able to handle all of your financial affairs and carry out transactions at bricks-and-mortar outlets will be possible.

At the moment, not every smartphone operating system supports NFC, with Apple being the biggest example of a company that has seemed uncharacteristically reluctant to add the tech to its iOS devices. But analysts believe that this stance will soon be dropped, making NFC’s future as a mainstream mobile solution assured.

Indeed, adapting non-NFC compatible handsets to support this solution can be as simple as adding an NFC chip into universally compatible SIM cards, although this does detract from the digital wallet features to a degree, making a mobile a little more like an NFC-ready bank card.

Eventually, NFC should make digital wallets ubiquitous. Although it may not kill off cash and cards completely, it will exist as an exciting alternative in addition to offering businesses a means of gathering information about customers and even engaging with them through the use of tags.