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  • Writer's pictureDean Anthony Gratton

Apple’s Thumbelina Approach to NFC

I assume the dust has now settled since Apple’s new iPhone and Watch launch a couple of weeks ago. I have to confess, I’m not an Apple lemming, so I didn’t spend hours or, for some, even days queuing at its London store. Having said that, my ears pricked up at the news that Apple are having some software issues at the moment with their iOS 8.0.1 update. Oh yes, those big ‘A’ share prices dropped quicker than our Wi-Fi and fingerprint access, causing new adopters of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus to get rather ‘bent out of shape’ if you’ll excuse the pun, and leaving Apple hoping that their newly released 8.0.2 update will quickly make things right. But hang on, it’s not all doom and gloom - there have been a lot of ‘rights’ too, a fact that brings me neatly on to NFC.

“[NFC is] the magic wand of wireless technologies: a simple swish of your NFC-enabled device can gain you access to buildings, cinemas, and subways, and another swish or two can allow you to make a payment and even to simplify connectivity with other wireless technologies.” (The Handbook of Personal Area Networking Technologies and Protocols, Cambridge University Press, 2013)

No more speculation is needed and the gossip can stop, since Apple has finally embraced Near Field Communications (NFC) in their latest generation iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Well, it’s about time and seriously long overdue (this is the most notable factor for me, irrespective of any software glitches). Although, I would welcome the opportunity to better understand why Apple hesitated previously in adopting the technology. Nonetheless, NFC is the obvious choice for digitising our wallets and, of course, there are a host of other applications and use cases that distinguish NFC from the over- crowded Wireless Personal Area Networking (WPANs) domain.

Is the Apple glass half full or half empty?

Naturally, the build-up prior to Apple’s announcement witnessed the industry fuelling conjecture across an already frenzied and awestruck audience. I’m sure you’ve been privy to many stories that intimated Apple’s alliance with MasterCard, Visa and American Express. Similarly, I’m sure we’ve all heard about the ‘tokenisation-like’ method being touted by Apple to further ensure that contactless transactions are secured by a throw-away token that can only be used once – a nice idea, I like it! It was also rumoured that many US retailers such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and McDonalds, to name a few, were purported to be in the process of rolling out new Apple-featured Point-of-Sale (PoS) terminals that will support the ‘Apple Pay’ method of contactless purchase using the new phones. But, is the NFC offering in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus nothing more than a Thumbelina attempt at introducing NFC technology?

When I lift the lid on the NFC offering within the new iPhone, it seems to be limited to contactless payments – now, whilst this is obviously the right step forward and, I’m not complaining, there’s nothing else! That’s it – c’est tout! Okay, so maybe I am complaining! I feel somewhat deflated, disappointed and despondent – in fact, to me, Apple has taken a Thumbelina approach to the integration of NFC leaving me unable to shake off the nagging thought, “It should have been more!” And, I can’t help further wonder, as I stare somewhat hopelessly at my glass of super-delicious Saint-Émilion, is the Apple’s NFC glass half empty or half full?

What next for iBeacon?

Dear Alcoholics Anonymous – never mind!

If I recall correctly, I did conjecture in last month’s post, “What would happen to Apple’s iBeacon?” – to be honest, who cares? We have NFC! And, as for push notifications, well they’re quite simply annoying unless, of course, you like to be pestered by ‘constant’ notifications that the glow-in-the-dark trainers you’ve spent your youth looking for at an ever-so affordable price are, 20 years too late, now on special offer – stop it, it was an 80s thing!

You see, Bluetooth low energy or Bluetooth Smart certainly has its advantages, but I never saw it as a contender for contactless payments, despite Apple’s iBeacon utilising the technology. I never saw Bluetooth low energy as a viable offering to enable electronic payments, as it was never in the Bluetooth Special Interests Group (SIG) remit to do so – well, I’ve never seen it defined as a profile!

What next for Apple and NFC?

Apple have not rushed into the contactless payment way-of-working since it’s heavily reliant on a larger ecosystem which, I’m sure, will undoubtedly be embraced by numerous retailers across the US – but what about the UK and Europe? Other rumours seem to suggest Apple Pay’s introduction to Europe might be delayed – something to do with ‘interchange fees’ that Apple will receive. Nevertheless, Apple’s apparent diligence and forethought could perhaps explain their hesitation in adopting NFC because, for better or worse, Apple like to do things their way.

So, I guess, the industry will have to proverbially ‘bend over’ (excuse the pun again) in favour of Apple’s way-of-working, either that or the tech giant may choose to put aside its ‘stand-alone’ attitude and listen to a wider industry that has been working on this wireless stuff for almost two decades! Contactless transactions have been held at ransom by the banking industry who retain our ‘information,’ but along comes Host Card Emulation (HCE) and we can now remove these financial bods from the transaction food chain. Apple’s take on such information is not to share it with anyone and, rightly so; as such, no ransom fee needs to be paid to some financial blob, although Apple does indeed receive a fee for each transaction. Likewise, a similar charge is levied by Visa and MasterCard to the retailer for every transaction – will we see ‘Apple Bank’?

Anyway, here in the UK we have already become accustomed to contactless payments with several retailers already operating contactless PDQs. The likes of Barclaycard, for example, have provided this ability, albeit with limited transaction values. A modest step forward into what will become a huge psychological shift for most consumers. That of simply swishing their card across a PDQ and, “Voila, you’ve paid.” I have to be honest here and admit that I’m still acclimatising to this new payment method, but the bigger psychological shift will surely be using our smartphones to make a payment. I’m sure some of us are still getting used to having the ability to use our phones to surf the Internet, watch a movie, and even send a tweet or post to Facebook – and, oh yes, we can still make a call!

We’ll just have to wait and see…

So, what will become of those other applications that are purported by NFC? Will we see our smartphone being used to gain access to the train or metro, and gain entry into buildings when we start our working day? Will I be able to gather further information from Smart Posters, rather than the ‘push’ mantra, which I’m sure the retailers would prefer?

The extension of Apple’s ecosystem to holistically bring both offline (bricks and mortar) and online to one seamless experience whilst building on a foundation of trust and inherent security would mean that we can accomplish the assuredly of a belief system. NFC has received a big wide push into mainstream consumerism, which can only be a positive thing for the technology, but I’m sure the industry will be mindful of what Apple does next, so I guess for now, we’ll have to wait and see.

Until next time…

I recently stumbled upon, as you do, the initial advertising campaign produced by Apple and their nowadays ‘iconic’ video of a reference to us ‘becoming all the same’ through their Orwellian-1984-themed advertisement. With this in mind, I wonder, just wonder, if the Apple flock have all become those same lemmings that the unwaywardly PC-centric (aka Windows) Apple initially conjectured?

So, this is where a Dr G, who doesn’t follow the crowd, since after all, I’d probably stagger, signs off.

Originally published in Technically Speaking.


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a technology influencer, analyst & futurist 

I dispel the rumours, gossip and hype surrounding new technology

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