What is NFC?

What is NFC? If you've been keeping up to date with all the latest news from the big mobile phone brands then chances are you will have heard the term. If you're a seasoned gadget aficionado then you might have already Googled it to death in your insatiable quest for tech knowledge. If not, then we're here to lend a helping hand in explaining what the hell everyone is going on about and what it means for you.

NFC stands for Near Field Communications which is a set of short-range wireless technologies that enable two nearby devices to communicate with each other; a little bit like Bluetooth. It can also be used in the same way as RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tagging technology, which has lots of applications like animal tagging and stock control in shops. NFC technology makes it possible to use your phone to read NFC tags and transmit the data directly to your phone. Those tags could be in anything from a product packaging to a 'smart' poster.

For example, an NFC-tagged poster might have a URL and address details written on it, but rather than having to jot them down, you can just scan the poster (in a specified spot) by simply holding your phone up to it and the details would transfer over automatically. There's also the possibility of transferring more complex items such as a free ringtone or the configuration for a local Wi-Fi hotspot.

The main difference between RFID and NFC is that while RFID can be used beyond a distance of a few metres, NFC has a very small range and is used where a more secure method is needed, such as using a contactless credit card to pay for something. In essence, NFC is a extension of RFID, but more secure.

NFC is a standard, rather than a proprietary technology, so it's not actually owned by anyone, although it was initially put forward in 2002 by Sony and NXP (an independent semiconductor company founded by Philips).

The way it all works is because NFC-toting devices (such as mobile phones) can also transmit power to simple, non-powered target such as a sticker, tag or key fob, so that these non-powered tags can be used to communicate with which makes things a whole lot cheaper. It may sound like witchcraft, but the process at work is in fact electromagnetic induction. What that means is that a magnetic field is generated by an NFC device and shared over two loop antennas. Any alteration to the magnetic field can result in an electrical current being produced in the target (let's say, a price sticker). The field of electromagnetism coming from the antennas is technically referred to as 'near field'.

Although only one of the two communicating devices needs to have power, it's also possible to transfer data between two powered gadgets as well, such as two mobile phones. So, that's all well and good, but what's the point of it all?

According to the NFC Forum - a non-profit industry association that promotes the use of the technology - the three main uses of NFC are “sharing, pairing, and transaction" with mobile payments the key area. NFC enables you to pay for things by wiping your phone over a scanner, rather than having to use cash or a credit or debit card. That means that you could pick up a newspaper in the morning and swipe your phone on the reader to make payment, rather than having to join a long queue to pay at the till.

It's also possible to use it for mobile ticketing and for transferring information from RFID tags, which are commonly used in shops and libraries (RFID is also widely used for transport passes and for automatic road toll collection). 

As well as transactions and information transfer from things like shop tags, you can also use the tech to pair up your phone with a pal's NFC-toting handset in order to exchange files or contact information, as you would with Bluetooth. Which begs the question - if it's so similar to Bluetooth, what's the point of it?

Although NFC and Bluetooth share some similarities, they're not exactly the same thing. While Bluetooth has an effective range of around 10m, NFC only works within 4cm or less. Bluetooth also has a faster data transfer rate of around 2.1 Mbit/s, compared to NFC's average range of just 106 - 848 kbit/s. Now, while it may seem an inferior method of short range communication, there are several benefits to the way it works - the first one being pairing speed. With NFC, a connection is established automatically, but with Bluetooth it usually requires several steps and then takes a few seconds to actually pair up with nearby devices. NFC's shorter range is also beneficial, as it means that there's less chance of interference from pesky hackers.

Energy efficiency is another benefit. When two NFC-capable device are being used together, power consumption is lower than when using Bluetooth gadgets. However, completely the opposite is true if only one of the NFC gizmos is powered and the other is a passive device, such as a price label. Now you know what it's for and why it's not the same thing as Bluetooth, is NFC actually available yet?

There are several devices that already have NFC on board including Nokia handsets (C7), along with the Google Nexus S and some versions of the Galaxy S II (not the UK model). BlackBerry recently announced that its upcoming Bold 9900 handset would be packing NFC while Apple is reportedly looking into NFC technology for the iPhone 5.

Although it's still relatively early days for the technology, we can expect to see a rapid rollout of NFC-based services over the next couple of years. Samsung has teamed up with Visa to offer mobile phone-based payments for goods at the 2012 Olympics in London. Meanwhile, Orange and T-Mobile parent company Everything, Everywhere has joined forces with Barclaycard to launch the UK’s first commercial contactless mobile payments service, with a rollout due by July 2011. A contactless credit card-based service has already been rolled out by Barclaycard in some areas and shops. The new service will enable you to make payments from your phone with over 40,000 stores ready to accept contactless payments. There are already millions of contactless credit cards in circulation, most of which have been issued by Barclaycard and Barclays.

Whipping your credit card to pay for a newspaper and pack of chewing gum might seem like the future to many, but for some, there are still concerns over security. Should we be worried about security? Well, maybe. No system is 100 per cent safe - just ask Sony or any of its 77million PlayStation Network users. It's no surprise that most of the companies involved in NFC technology claim that it's completely safe although many sceptics claim that this is not the case. In its raw form, NFC might be susceptible to eavesdropping thanks to the RF technology used. However, any viable commercial system will undoubtedly have extra levels of security built into the hardware along with ID authenticators, like the PIN on your phone.

Of course the eventual aim (along with making lots of money for all the companies involved) is to make our lives easier. The idea is that your mobile phone can be used as your credit card, as well as your bus pass, your ticket to an exhibition, and the key to your house or office. Sounds nice in theory, but isn't this seemingly endless convergence of different devices and services a recipe for disaster? What if you lose your phone? Since Apple's alarm clock-based iOS bug debarcle, we don't fully trust our phone's alarm clock to wake us up in time to get to the airport anymore, let alone store a plane ticket.  

However, despite the potential pitfalls, NFC looks likely to become standard on smartphones in the same way that Bluetooth has and we would expect to see it appearing on most, if not all, of the big handsets in 2012. As it becomes a mainstream technology, any security kinks will be ironed out along the way, which should make it no less safe than any other wireless technology.