It has been two years since NFC (Near Field Communications) made a splash as the next big mobile technology. Karthik Subramanian finds out whether it will replace wallets as it promised to or whether it will just be a fad

For two years now, big mobile handset manufacturers have been extolling the advantages of NFC (Near Field Communications) and calling it a breakthrough technology.

Barring Apple’s iPhone 5, the flagship mobiles of all leading brands — Samsung Galaxy S series, HTC One series, Sony Xperia’s high-end line-up, Nokia’s Lumia line-up and even the latest Z10 from Blackberry — boast NFC chips. There are rumours that the next iPhone from Apple — speculation is that it will be the iPhone 5S — will have NFC.

The promise has been that the NFC-enabled phones will eventually replace credit cards, gift vouchers, railway tickets and everything else that fills one’s wallet. Google has been championing the technology ever since it offered full support to it in its Gingerbread (version 2.3) iteration of the Android mobile operating system in 2010. The Nexus S handset from Google (manufactured by Samsung) was the first mobile phone on Android platform with NFC support.

The year 2010 is considered a ‘public breakthrough year’ for the technology because of the mass appeal of Google’s Android. But the technology itself took root in 2004 with the establishment of a not-for-profit industry collective called the NFC Forum that has been establishing global inter-operability standards.

Touch technology

Near Field Communications (NFC) is a short-range wireless connectivity technology that provides intuitive, simple and safe communication between electronic devices. Communication occurs when two NFC-compatible devices are brought within four centimetres of each other. According to the technical white paper available on the NFC Forum’s official website, NFC operates at 13.56 Mhz and transfers data at up to 424 Kbits/ second. Because the transmission range is short, the transactions are inherently secure.

Google Wallet is powered by NFC technology and is being used as a payment gateway across U.S. retail stores since last year. Google Wallet users can use their mobile phones like credit cards if the payment check-out counters are also NFC-enabled. So instead of swiping their credit cards, all they do is tap their phones on the counters to make a transaction.

In India too, an NFC-enabled payment App was announced at the launch of Blackberry’s new Z10 mobile phone in February. PVR Cinemas launched what is arguably the first commercial NFC-enabled payment App for the Blackberry10 platform that enables Z10 users to pay for their tickets across 15 of its theatre complexes after topping up their Apps with their credit card accounts.

Technology forums say the technology that has been on the sidelines for several years might finally be taking centre stage now.

Cost factor

Despite recent promises, NFC also could end up being a costly gimmick. Though it has been around for long, a lot of doubts arise primarily because it has not quite taken off the way Google or the other big companies have promised it would so far.

Also, though the technology itself is secure, several NFC phone users from the West, have written on technology blogs that they don’t feel secure topping up their mobile phone with credit card details because of mobile phone thefts.

If one removes the mobile payment gateway application, NFC is reduced to a ‘tap and share’ technology between two phones. But with the presence of Bluetooth and improved network capabilities, most find the method of sharing files a bit gimmicky if not more.

And then there is always the much cheaper alternative — the QR Code that has a much wider reach, because it can be used even in basic handsets. The Quick Response Code is a type of bar code that can be read by any handset which has a basic camera and the application is far more universal — QR Codes are found in print too.

Though some enthusiasts would like the world to believe that the technologically superior NFC would spell death for the QR Code, especially in a country like India, the cost-effective QR Code is only now being increasingly adopted.