Design Con 2015

Near-field communications to go far in 2013

-December 07, 2012

This article is part of EDN's Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2013 feature, where EDN editors and guest contributors examine some of the hot trends and technologies in 2012 that promise to shape technology news in 2013 and beyond.

NFC, or near-field communications, has been around for 10 years, battling its own version of the chicken-and-egg question: Which comes first, the enabled devices or the applications?

The technology is there, yet there has been a major deterrent to NFC’s market growth and consumer use: Why build into a device when no applications or services are available, and why offer applications or services when no devices have been built to utilize them?

In 2012, however, NFC started to break out of its shell. NFC-enabled devices rocketed up to 100 million shipped, a significant climb from 2010’s 2 million devices sold. Estimates call for 300 million NFC-enabled devices to be sold in 2013 and for the billion-device mark to be reached in 2015.

To date, most such devices are smartphones. With many smartphone makers in the Android and now Windows camps getting on board with NFC, leading OEMs including LG, Nokia, and Samsung have begun designing NFC into products.

Notably, Apple left NFC out of its iPhone 5. As NFC Forum director Debbie Arnold observes, however, “Apple has about 15% global share of the market. With 85% leaning toward NFC … it’s not something that keeps us up at night.”

The NFC Forum formed in 2004, when the very short-range (5-cm) communications technology was in its infancy. Now, the forum’s more than 170 member companies showcase an extensive base of semiconductor industry players, including Broadcom, Intel, National Instruments, NXP, and Texas Instruments.

In November, the forum introduced the NFC Controller Interface specification, which defines a standard interface within an NFC device between an NFC controller and the device’s main application processor. The group expects the specification will help broaden the availability and eventually encourage the price competitiveness of NFC.

Now that the devices and specifications are hatching, flocks of applications and services are on their way. In fact, more have arrived than many consumers realize. Beyond the mobile wallet (Figure 1), NFC is seeing use in Bluetooth pairing and applications in various transportation terminals, interactive signs and displays, identification, and peer-to-peer exchange.


Figure 1
A consumer pays
using an NFC-enabled mobile
wallet, by far the most talked-about application of NFC.

What remains an obstacle is educating consumers on yet another wireless communications technology that does not compete with but is complementary to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Samsung, for one, is playing up interactive displays and peer-to-peer sharing in advertisements for its Galaxy S III NFC-enabled phone by showing users scanning posters for free songs or tapping phones together to share contact information, music, and files (Figure 2).


Figure 2 NFC offers retail interaction by tapping a device to a sign or display, in this case to
download a gaming demo.

“Some of these things, in creating physical shortcuts and ways for mobile applications to interact with physical retail establishments, start to unlock the fact that there are hundreds of millions of customers who have these devices,” says Jeff Miles, NXP’s vice president of mobile transactions, which includes the company’s identification business. “Tags and the different applications are an area that can explode. It’s relatively simple to implement and is straightforward for consumers. Tap, and something magical happens.”

Samsung shows off its Galaxy S III NFC capabilities while taking a bite at Apple in this ad:

Beyond smartphones, NFC is starting to be seen in other consumer goods such as tablets, PCs, printers, and even microwaves. Beyond the electronics vertical, sectors such as health care are starting to explore ways to utilize NFC.

“We often hear about the mobile wallet,” says Arnold, “but NFC is going to go down so many different paths. Once we get over this hump, we are going to see this take off in a lot of different verticals.”

Also watching:

  • 3-D printing. This DIY maker technology has been around for some time, but now 3-D printers are becoming affordable for individuals, as well as lower-level educational institutions, to purchase for their workspaces (Figure 3). With everything from car parts to vital organs being talked about as possibilities for 3-D printing, we’ll be seeing much more on this technology in 2013.


Figure 3 3-D printers such as
the affordable, easy-to-use
Cube home printer could allow
consumers to print many
household products less
expensively than they could
buy them.

  • Inexpensive tablets and e-readers. The newest iPad may start at $500, but not every tablet needs the shine Apple puts on its products (Figure 4). Harking back to ideas pushed forth by the XO laptop—part of the One Laptop per Child effort, which sought to provide low-cost technology to the masses—sub-$100 tablets and e-readers will offer more alternatives to pricey iPads and even to less-expensive Kindles.


Figure 4
NXP’s PN65 featuring
an NFC radio controller and an
embedded Secure Element is
designed into such devices as
the Google Nexus 7 tablet.

Read more of EDN's Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2013:

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