Here’s Why Your iPhone Will Never Have NFC

| Analysis

For a company like Apple that manages an ecosystem of integrated hardware, software and services, planning for future products means fitting new technologies into a coherent architecture that's already been developed. That can mean technologies, like NFC, that don't fit in, get bypassed and left behind. Technologies that do, and serve the customer, are embraced. That's why Apple is moving to Bluetooth SMART instead of NFC.

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When developing a new mobile technology, there are some key questions to ask.

  • Does it fit in with a company's vision and technologies?
  • Does it offer functionality that translates into meaningful, easy-to-use services? In other words, how does the feature set map to user needs and market realities?
  • Is it geared to a successful mobile and low-power environment?

It appears that Apple has investigated Near Field Communications (NFC) technology and found it wanting. Most notably, Google has promoted NFC with Google Wallet for a mobile payment system. Samsung has invoked it as part of its S Beam technology, epitomized by its infamous anti-Apple commercials showing two Galaxy S4 users touching their phones together to share data. So cool. We want that, right?

Maybe not.

As we've discussed before, some current technologies, like NFC, can be implemented to solve a particular problem in isolation, but the richness, usability and potential of the technology are found wanting. As in the example above with Samsung and S Beam, it may make for a cool TV ad, but a broader analysis would probably suggest this is not where mobile technologies need to go.

Apple's focus and product vision—helped in part by an R&D budget reaching almost $4 billion per year these days—allows the company to scope out a technology, see if it fits in with customer expectations and needs, and perhaps dismiss it if fails those tests.

So what do mobile customers really need?

Bluetooth SMART = Bluetooth Low Energy

A series of articles have emerged that go into the details of Apple's invocation of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), also branded as Bluetooth SMART. This is a new technology, included in the Bluetooth 4 specification, but different from standard Bluetooth as we know it. It's a low power, longer range (50 meters), low data rate technology. It's not suited for voice or audio, rather simple data such as geo-coordinates.

Devices that can use both technologies are called "dual mode." Apple's iPhone 4S was the first dual mode iPhone.

The best introductions I have found are by, first, who else but Daniel Eran Dilger: "Inside iOS 7: iBeacons enhance apps' location awareness via Bluetooth LE." and then a shorter but sharper analysis by Steve Cheney, "On the Future of iOS and Android." See item #8 there. As an added bonus, Mr. Cheney also delves into my own theme: the kind of technical development it takes to compete in the modern, mobile era. Finally, see Rene Ritchie's splendid article, "iOS 7 preview: Accessory support for iBeacons, game controllers, and more!"

Left unmentioned, but I surmise it's an implication, is that a modern low-power mobile device should be, in general, listening, not transmitting. Of course, the principle use, transmission to an 4G/LTE tower sucks a lot of battery power, as we know. So in Apple's relentless pursuit of low-power, high-performance mobile devices, it makes sense to transfer the burden of power to local BLE transmitters (beacons), not to the iPhone.

Here are some of the things that Bluetooth SMART can do:

  • Micro-location services. For example, you wouldn't have to wander all over a store looking for particular item by sight. Beacons can broadcast to your iPhone just what you're looking for.
  • Game controller support.
  • Indoor navigation in malls. Interactive museum tours, etc.
  • Remote control of home lighting.
  • A wireless payment system that's decidedly less intimate. No need to crowd around a payment kiosk and wave your iPhone just so.
  • Broadcasting of local store ads and, say, coupons.
  • Communication between, say, an iWatch and an iPhone.

Once we start to explore the idea of local beacons and Apple's new API called iBeacon, introduced at WWDC 2013, one starts to get the feeling that we'll have a nifty set of services that have been thought out and are useful to us. Mr. Dilger summarizes:

Pundits and analysts have been nagged Apple for not following Google's implementation of NFC, even as Samsung has advertised its support for Android Beam's 'bump to share' as 'the next big thing.' More recently, however, NFC's lackluster adoption has left it regarded as a significant failure compared to its year and a half of hype."

Perhaps this is why, when asked about NFC, Apple's Senior V.P. of Product Marketing. Phil Schiller, said:

It’s not clear that NFC is the solution to any current problem. Passbook does the kinds of things customers need today."

That was a gentle diversion. Put into context now, we can see where Mr. Schiller was coming from. However, at the time, that remark seemed to suggest that Apple was being contrarian, backwards or indifferent. Perhaps, some thought, Samsung, in its headlong rush into NFC, appeared to be the technical leader. Now, in hindsight, we can see that Apple had a different plan. One that would serve the customer better.

Going forward, it's time to see who bet on the right horse. I'm betting on Apple.

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iPhone 5 image via Apple.

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Comments

ibuck

Used to be that Windows partisans buffaloed those in their circle into PC’s (vs Apple’s Macs), but now many of those folks are using Apple’s iPads.  Now it seems Android partisans are buffaloing those in their circle into Android. If the prognostications of John Martellaro, Daniel Eran Dilger, Phil Schiller, Steve Cheney, etc are correct, will those folks subsequently buy Apple mobile devices?  And stop being influenced by these (same?) folks?

CudaBoy

“Need”??? Since when does “need” enter into the equation?? Features are functionality - the people will determine need, not Apple. So far, people are digging NFC, obviously. Apple’s ecosystem is not friendly to change or modification so when the competition rolls along, Apple cries “need”???
Remember when Apple said they didn’t “need” a small tablet form factor??
Apple should shut up and stop being defensive and get off their asses with some new product WITH NFC, true GPS, longer battery life (I dare them to come close to Nexus 7) and while I’m fantasizing how about a Mac Pro for less than $5 Grr???
This isn’t rocket science you know - under the hood lurks the same old ancient kernel and SCSI.

wab95

John:

Excellent points.

Apple, amongst all the tech companies, has an obvious road map, even if that map’s directions are not always obvious to the outside observer. Even when they are, including to Apple’s competitors, it does not mean that it can be emulated.

More importantly, as argued before, the next evolutionary, let along revolutionary, steps can only be taken once the technology has matured to the point that it can be deployed as a consumer-ready service or product. To meet that standard, it has to provide a consistent and standardised experience irrespective of location.

Apple goes yet further and demands a still higher standard, as a rule, namely that it provide a best in class experience for the user, if it is to be a core technology and not merely an add-on feature (like the posterior camera on the iPad).

The challenge remains for Apple to train the public and pundits that upgrades and next steps are dependent upon the growth and maturation of the technology, and not the timetable of self-appointed critics.

daemon

John,

I really want to know: Do you have direct knowledge of what Apple is currently developing?

In what forms do you have this information?  Do you have extensive R&D reports?

I’m just asking because you wrote the article like someone who would have direct knowledge of Apple’s current R&D efforts and furture product releases.

Imagestealer

Good article John.

Like a lot of technical inventions, NDC is really a solution searching desperately for a problem.

Time will tell which system prevails.

Imagestealer

Stupid system won’t let me edit my comments.  I meant NFC, not NDC.

ksec

Mobile Payment? NFC isn’t anywhere as popular in Europe and US. But in Korea, Japan, and China it has already kicked off long ago. With China Mobile coming with a special sim and require a Phone with NFC support to use it. ( Why did you think China Mobile bought a Bank for? They have been working on this for a long time )
This will be rolling at the end of this year and two years later every phone sold in China will have this function built in, from shopping in local convenience store to day to day transport.  The NFC function are there already. These countries are merely switching their usage from Card/ Watch to their Phone.

If, Apple really did care about China’s market. They will need NFC.

Kirstin Bosley Barkley

So how does one suppose that Apple is going to convince the hundreds of thousands of merchant locations to abandon their brand new contactless POS terminals that are becoming mandatory by 2016 (Processing fees will increase if EMV terminals are not implemented)? Apple may convince small merchants to adopt a peer to peer payment method with BLE but just as Square has stalled with major retailers, so will Apple.  The payment industry requires standards to move and the standards take years to impact merchant adoption. If Apple adds NFC it will allow the rest of the market to move forward.

Paul Goodwin

Apple historically has been right on at times and not so right on at other times picking a standard. But most times they’ve picked the best solution. Unfortunately, the best solution isn’t always the one that becomes popular. And they have many times found a need that we didn’t know we had. Yes, the buyers in the end determine what’s needed, but Apple has managed many times to release products and technologies before it dawned on us that we needed it. It’ll be interesting to see which technology wins out. It would seem that the one with the lowest energy requirements, the farthest range, and the most effective security would win out. I personally don’t know how far along NFC is in getting established. I have yet to witness a single person not in a commercial using NFC. It would seem that the BLE would be far more flexible, and require much less energy. It’s also possible that the actual usage of these technologies will diverge. The present range of NFC is about 8 inches I think, and BLE is about 150 ft.

daemon

I’ve used NFC at vending machines, Rite-Aide, and McDonalds.

RonMacGuy

I was just about to post how sad it is that Bosco isn’t around to post that he uses NFC at McDonalds and some bagel place, then saw daemon has stepped up!!

John Dingler, artist

I remain grateful to the TA who convinced me to move from Windows to Mac.

My only regret is that Apple finally fell (it was last while MS was first) to the NSA’s demands to turn over customer data, but the National Security Police State seems to steamroll all whom it encounters.

daemon

... Dingler, what’s your source for saying such things?

Substance

Out here in the midwest (and I don’t mean Chicago), I’ve seen NFC at exactly…0 merchants.  Don’t be fooled by the early adopters, NFC isn’t a ‘gotta-have’ feature for the 99%.

wab95

Substance:

I travel the world fairly extensively, high and low-income countries, and everything in between. I have seen NFC perhaps twice that I recall, once in Asia and once in Europe. I only ever hear of it on tech websites, like TMO or CNET, and occasionally on other media around upcoming iPhone launches. Mind you, as a technophile, I look for tech in operation when I travel.

While I have probably encountered it more than I recount, and while I don’t doubt that it is being used in certain venues (daemon lists three, none of which I frequent), it’s hardly storming the castle.

If BLE lives up to its billing, and should it be adopted in lieu of NFC, this would not be the first time that a technology was left stillborn by another with superior versatility.

ctopher

wab95 - If you’ve ever used the MTR in Hong Kong then you’ve seen a lot of NFC readers. London’s Oyster Card, Chicago’s CTA and Shanghi Metro all use NFC/RFID systems. The MTR uses the Octopus Card. These use NFC (ISO 14443, I’m not sure which type). You can use the card at many retailers as well. What you cannot do is use your phone instead. There are Android apps that let you use the NFC capability to read the balance on a card, but Octopus does not have an App that will turn your phone into a card.

I wonder why that is? They have the extensive back-end, why not make phones compatible and stop selling the plastic cards?

These are complex systems and just having NFC capability doesn’t make them “Just work”.

wab95

ctopher:

You’re absolutely right; and I have seen and used many of the above. Indeed, NFC is used extensively, particularly in transport, in many parts of Asia and Europe.

I should have clarified; what I have not seen is NFC used on a phone but perhaps once or twice.

Many thanks for pointing that out.

Christine Rachar

Apple denigrates Nearfield because anyone not wanting their secure data tapped would never use an iPhone to make a nearfield transaction. Obama and Homeland security use Blackberry for the same reason. iPhone and nearfield don’t mix and if Blackberry is successful with nearfield technology Apple is in a lot of trouble. So bad mouth it on mass, get the analyst and T.V. talking heads talking it down and voila you stop better technology in its tracks.
Good work boys.

Djerk Geurts

Sorry but I find comparing NFC to BT4.0 rather far fetched. As an IT consultant I’m seeing a number of cases where NFC is used, the short range of communication here is crucial to the success of the application.

I would not want to pay with Bluetooth 4.0. UK Oyster cards use NFC, point being you ‘touch’ in. Touch to pay, uses NFC. Fancy paying for someone else next time you pay for your lunch at at Subway?

Most of you who say you’ve not seen it anywhere most like are already using it. Some NFC ‘devices’ for you: Passport, bank and credit cards, access cards, event tickets, security tags, package tracking and there are many more.

As someone who assesses corporate usage and feasibility of products pitched to my customers I often hear that they’d like to use something they already have. Which means that people with NFC in their phones are able to check into their flex desks at work.

Oh but Apple doesn’t do NFC? What a shame…! Effectively Apple is keeping itself outside of BYOD and any other integration where Apple would not get so called piece of the pie. Supporting apt-x audio being another example.

So please stop comparing apples to pears. BT4.0 is great and my Galaxy S4 supports both BT4.0 and NFC for obvious reasons, they’re meant for completely different things.

Djerk Geurts

Oh btw, some ways I’ve seen NFC used on a phone: BT audio receiver start/stop tap-in/tap-out (Sony BM10 for example and quite a few others like it). Tap-to-pay using Google wallet and Paypal (Subway). Flex-desk and meeting room check-in (Condeco and others). Event ticket scanning… I’m sure there are more in the works, do have to admit that lack of iPhone adoption is limiting vendor’s willingness to use NFC in some cases.

In come cases though you can just stick and NFC sticker to the back of the iPhone or in a user’s case. This doesn’t help the iPhone to start playing music when tapping into a BT audio receiver though…

Steve Mercer

I am somewhat mystified by some of the comments here and what Apple is up to.  First of all if you look at history, the barcode technology we use today did not take off overnight either ( in retail ).  What makes you think NFC will either?  There is a lot on the line for retailers,  they only bet on a sure thing and sometimes even then only after their competition has beat them to the punch.  For any retail technology like NFC to be possible ALL smartphone manufacturers need to be on board.  Put yourself in a retailer’s shoes:  so you are going to still have to print barcodes to be placed on products because here in the US there are still a lot of people who don’t have smartphones and there are still people who do not have cell phones at all (believe it or not).  So that means that going to the added expense of placing a NFC tag on every product just adds another layer of cost that your competition may choose not to add.  The potential real power of NFC is when EVERYONE has a smartphone with a NFC reader built-in and are connected to the internet AND that the smartphone displays have improved to the point that a user can use the smartphone in FULL sun and still get the same user experience as they do indoors.  I do NOT see iBeacons replacing NFC for the simple reason that iBeacons may be able to direct a phone user to a specific location i.e. a display with-in a store but it will not track where every product is located at any one point in time.  Shoppers tend to select products from displays and then change their mind later in the store and just places those products anywhere handy.  Until you can track the location of every product’s location in a store in real time,  you will still continue to need a tag on each product sold.  This is why NFC is better for this particular application.  Furthermore what about after the sale?  How many of you have a piece of equipment you bought at the store and then two years latter you need information from an owners manual or a part from a parts manual that shipped with the product?  It the product has an NFC Smart Tag on the product you could merely scan the tag and be able to view all that information.  What if you had to have service on your furnace?  If the technician who shows up to repair your furnace could scan the NFC chip he could get a full service record of what service had been performed on the unit before he even starts to work on it.  I see the true power of NFC being achieved when manufacturers are the ones placing the NFC tag on the product before it is shipped to retail distribution.  The retail sector and the service sector can use the same tag but to collect the information they need for their function.  This is not to say that iBeacons do not have their place they do!  They open up a whole new world in location marketing and for that Apple should be applauded.  However, I have to wonder just how much of Apple’s resistance to adding NFC readers to their devices is because it was their arch rivals idea instead of theirs.  We have yet to see the ACTUAL product that Apple wants to deliver to compete head to head with NFC.  The problem is they are holding up the entire retail industry by not including NFC readers in their equipment,  and even if they deliver a new NFC competitor their new product AND NFC will not be useful to the Retail industry until all mobile devices include the readers.  You can say what you want to about Google but Google was faced with the same issue only in reverse.  They adopted NFC and NFC readers but were not supporting BLE.  Give them credit at least they LISTENED to their customers and decided to include support for BLE.  To bad Jobs is not still at the helm of Apple because I believe he would have the vision to see this for what it is and go on and include NFC for the good of the industry.  In the end Apple is being Apple.

Steve Mercer

There are many applications that BLE or iBeacons are not suited for.  For example food safety, There are companies right now that are using NFC tags that are placed on harvested fruits and vegetables when they are harvested.  The consumer a retail will be able to read the tag on the produce and get a freshness rating.  If their is a disease outbreak the Fed would be better able to track (through the tag back to the original field an when the outbreak occured using the same tag. Using NFC for mobile payments or for doing smartphone to smartphone data transfers is just the tip of a much larger iceburg.  The reason that RFID has been relegated to a distribution technology only is because it takes special reading equipment (that is really expensive)  With the invention of NFC this problem is solved but not if manufacturers like Apple refuse to add it to their products.

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