WTF is... NFC
Not For Consumers?
Cash for Apples
This is where Apple enters the picture. Despite Cupertino's reticence to embed NFC in the iPhone 5, the company has waded into the voucher and loyalty market with Passbook. Passbook is an iOS 6 app designed to contain tickets and vouchers, but with space for loyalty cards and perhaps even credit cards as long as they're happy with barcode- or QR code-based authentication. Passbook would seem to be taking the revenue opportunity without having to shell out for additional hardware, making NFC redundant in the process.
Google Wallet in action
Only not quite - that duopoly of Visa and Mastercard won't be keen to support payments authenticated by an on-screen graphic, and while American Express is currently rumoured to be working to support Passbook, that's because it needs every additional platform it can muster in order to support its higher transaction fees.
But proximity payments isn't the most interesting application for NFC, even if it is the most - potentially - profitable. Tapping a phone to a TV to share a picture is an elegant and natural interface, even if the photograph will be actually transferred over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. NFC's top speed is only 400Kb/s, so a separate connection will be necessary for the transfer, which will require a longer range - the user is already walking back to the sofa - but the fileshare negotiation can happen almost instantly using NFC.
Nokia's Play 360 demonstrates NFC at its best: tap a phone on top of the speaker and a Bluetooth audio stream is established. Tap two speakers together and they agree which will play the left channel of the stereo stream and which the right, all without the user ever touching a menu or ticking an option.
One can easily imagine the concept extended to a television, setting up a DLNA or Miracast connection to show mobile content on a big screen or vice versa if one wishes to take a running TV show up to bed or onto the train.
Nokia's Play 360 in action
All that is perfectly possible without NFC of course; the technology just provides an easier way of doing existing things. This is perhaps why Apple is so reluctant to get involved. Apple's philosophy has always been to provide one, very intuitive, way of doing things, while the rest of the computer industry - notably Microsoft - excelled at providing 20 different ways to do something and let users deside which they prefer.
Apple folk can already use AirPlay to stream pictures and video to their Apple TV boxes. Providing instant configuration at a tap would admit that this process was imperfect, and Apple wouldn't have any truck with an imperfect process.
Indeed, Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller, right after the iPhone 5 launch, told AllThingsD that "Passbook does the kinds of things customers need today", and it doesn't have to tie into any existing merchant system. It’s not clear that NFC is the solution to any current problem, he added.
But those cool applications - tapping against speakers and televisions to stream content; against the front door to unlock it - will seduce even Apple users eventually, by which time Cupertino will no doubt have a suitably own-brand take on the technology. It's not hard at at to imagine 2013 seeing the arrival of the iPhone 5S with an NFC sensor tucked within its frame.
The big question is, will Apple decide to launch its own payment system at the same time, something Cupertino itself probably hasn't yet decided. With all the credit cards assigned to iTunes accounts, it already has the makings of one. Will it choose to expand the system to allow punters to pay for goods and services from third-parties with their iTunes IDs?
Almost NFC transactions are made with cards, not phones. Perhaps they always will be
Apple's decision to hold off is excellent news for the competing payment platforms, the operator consortia and Google Wallet, but those people waiting for NFC door locks and NFC televisions will be disappointed that Apple isn't spreading some of its brand cool to what is one of the coolest technologies around. ®