Buried in the supporting data for Apple’s announcement of iOS11 is the news that, for the first time, iPhones will be able to use both near field communications (NFC) tag mode and reader mode.
In current versions of iOS, NFC may be used for wireless payments as part of ApplePay, but this is so far the only possible use case. Enabling NFC reader mode in the operating system will allow scenarios such as tap-to-pair with Bluetooth devices, and location-based services such as tap to gain information about a particular place or item.
Although Android phones have had this capability for some time, and NFC technology has been around for some years, the technology has not quite reached its potential to date.
Acknowledging that uptake of NFC technology has been “spotty” so far, Jeff Miles, vice president of sales for mobile transactions at NXP, pointed to inconsistent user experience as a major culprit.
"We’ve been telling the world about this technology for 10 years, but changing consumer behaviour is easier said than done," Miles said. "It’s incredibly important now to ensure it’s done right — the user experience has to be consistent... in the past, there have been great tag technologies around, but how they have been implemented, and how co-ordinated the approach has been has been variable."
With iPhones such a large part of the smartphone market, Apple wields considerable power to kickstart widespread acceptance of NFC technology, something that NFC chip makers have welcomed.
"It unlocks a big part of the market that we think is very exciting," Miles said. "Our hope is that this news expands the use cases, as happened with Bluetooth, creative developers and brands can create new applications we haven’t yet thought of."
Patrick Sohn, marketing manager for NFC/RFID tags and readers at STMicroelectronics, was similarly optimistic.
"Many consumer and IoT applications were considering implementing NFC technology, but were waiting for it to be supported universally by all of the top cell phone manufacturers," Sohn said, citing health and wellness accessories, wearables, smart sensors and smart posters as key applications. "This is good news in general for the NFC technology and is a significant sign that the technology is becoming mainstream for IoT/consumer applications."