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NFC not just for Apple

Androids eye near field comms

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Apple has been busy patenting all things NFC, but according to silicon manufacturers it will be Android handsets that bring short-range wireless into the mainstream first.

Near Field Communications - a short-range radio standard aimed at the proximity-payment/home-automation market - will appear in a "vast portfolio of [Android] phones next year" NXP Semiconductors, who make NFC chips, has told NFC World, but it’s Apple who's tying up the business model that might pay for short-range wireless.

Apple has been patenting all sorts of wireless applications, the latest being "iTravel" which covers using an NFC-equipped iPhone as a boarding pass as well as equipping iTunes with the ability to sell travel tickets and provide proof of identity through "a photograph, fingerprint or retinal scan... for verification of the traveller’s identity".

Much of the patent, detailed by Patently Apple, will be familiar to anyone who’s used Felica or similar. Airlines in Japan use Felica applications in much the same way as described by Apple and would seem, at a glance, to provide considerable prior-art. But we’ll leave that to the patent lawyers to argue about.

While Apple presents ways in which to make money from NFC, Android fans should get their hands on some NFC hardware by the end of 2010, though with a pair of "standard" APIs available it might be a while before NFC applications follow the hardware.

NXP Semiconductors, makers of NFC chips, told NFC World it expected "first phones will be available this year" with more coming in the first half of 2011. Those phones should be programmable using NXP’s Apache-licensed API, as opposed to the entirely open-sourced (and hosted on souceforge.net) version from Inside Contactless. Both versions have been proposed to the Open Handset Alliance, and both companies admit that a single standard is desperately needed - they just disagree on which standard that should be.

But even once a single API is available for NFC on Android, it still won’t have the infrastructure to support the kind of revenue-generating application embodied by iTravel.

Apple will be getting into NFC - the only question is when. A comprehensive dissection of the next iPhone didn’t show any NFC hardware, though that wasn’t carried out with NFC in mind so a chip and antenna could easily have been missed.

It seems likely that Cupertino will be happy to let Android lead the way, test the hardware and introduce the concepts, before it swoops in itself and makes the whole thing practical and popular. ®

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