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Nokia patents touch-tastic NFC operator leapfrog

Rub your equipment against things you like

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A US patent from Nokia shows how a handset manufacturer can make money from NFC, without being forced into a relationship with the banks or even the network operators.

The idea, explained in detail over at NFC World, is to forget about proximity payments and tap-to-pair networking. The suggestion is to concentrate on facilitating punters buying stuff by tapping on a tag rather than selecting from an on-screen list - or at least to own the patent on process.

That patent - filed in February last year and published last month, but has not yet awarded - describes how a mobile phone can be tapped against a tag to buy a product or sign up to a service, with a payment gateway collecting the money and an activation server to control delivery of the service.

It's the latter two steps which are new - N-Mark, the standard for Near Field Communications, already has a standard for reading a URL which could point to a sign-up page. Nokia's patent suggests the tap triggers a request to a store front which responds asking for a confirmation, so the user has to say yes too. The store front then contacts the billing system and (once the money has cleared) the activation service.

The billing system could be linked to the network operator directly, but could equally well use premium-rate messaging. This wouldn't require integration with the operators' billing systems and puts the whole mechanism in the handset manufacturer's hands.

Imagine seeing a poster for a new single - you tap your iPhone against the poster and get a message from iTunes asking you to confirm, with the music delivered once you have done so. That's basically what Nokia's patent covers, which poses questions about obviousness and prior art that will no doubt keep the patent attorneys in business for a while.

The service could go further: one can imagine getting junk mail for a TV channel and subscribing to that channel by tapping one's phone against the envelope, or signing up to a printing service by tapping an advert that came in the box with a new digital camera.

Nokia's patent (pdf) provides lots of details showing how the billing service and activation manager keeps track of all this stuff, but we're not qualified to judge how valid that makes this patent. Still, it's certain that Apple will be planning something along these lines for its own NFC deployment - perhaps that's rather the point. ®

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