Whenever Apple launches a new version of iOS, it is a significant moment. Not just for the company, but for the tech industry more generally: When Apple decides that a technology or feature is ready, and incorporates it into its product line, it will move markets. By contrast, when Samsung tries to do something clever with its devices, the world reacts with a shrug.
It’s unfortunate then that there appears to be an enormous missed opportunity with NFC - aka Near Field Communications. The first Google-powered device to support NFC was the Nexus S released way back in 2010. Since then, it has become almost universal on new devices.
And it has the potential to be hugely useful. It can be used to exchange files by tapping two NFC devices together, and it can be used to make the bluetooth pairing process less tedious and mean that you never have to manually type in a wifi code ever again.
The Apple Factor
Apple has incorporated NFC tech on the hardware side since the iPhone 6 and original Apple Watch - so consequentially, there are tens of millions of devices out there which have it. But until now, Apple has limited its use and the tech could only be used exclusively by Apple Pay. Third party developers - and creators of potentially thousands of new applications - have been left out.
So it was pretty exciting to learn during last night’s WWDC presentation that Apple is opening the technology on the phones up. It has created a new API for NFC: Essentially a means by which developers can easily code in support for NFC in their apps. Brilliant, right?
There’s just one problem: Annoyingly, and inexplicably, though this is still a leap forward, Apple has for some reason decided to make the API “read only”. NFC tags can now be read, but your can’t make the iPhone send data back in response.
What this means in practice is that iPhone NFC could now be used, say, in a museum. Imagine standing in the Science Museum, looking at the Apollo capsule, and being able to scan the NFC tag and have your phone automatically load up a video of the rocket which carried it taking off, for example. Perhaps in IKEA, read only tags could mean that you could add that coffee table to the shopping basket on the IKEA app - so that when you get to the end of the showroom section, a member of staff has already dug out your new furniture from the warehouse.
In other words, it could definitely be a useful new feature. And by opening up NFC, Apple will no doubt encourage new NFC functionality in way that no other hardware maker can. But still, it strikes me as lacking in ambition.
Eliminating The Wallet
When he launched Apple Pay in late 2015, company CEO Tim Cook claimed that his intention was to eliminate the wallet. Carrying cash is annoying: Wouldn’t it be better if we could just use our phones to pay for stuff? This follows the Apple wallet. Rather than carry annoying paper tickets and passes, wouldn’t it be easier if we could store these things digitally?
So it seems strange then that Apple hasn’t unleashed the full abilities of the NFC by making it read only. If developers could take full advantage of the iPhone’s ability to send data via NFC - as we see in action whenever Apple Pay is used - it would open up a host of new possibilities.
For example, conceivably it could be used on door locks - meaning that you would never again need to use a physical key. Just going through my wallet gives me other ideas: It could eliminate the need to carry a separate card to unlock Zipcar rentals or London Cycle Hire bikes. Just swipe the phone and you’re good to go. It could remove the most annoying part of setting up a new wifi gadget, where it creates a new hotspot you need to connect to and have you faff about with passwords. Instead, your phone could simply transmit the password for your wifi network to your new smart bulbs or whatever.
It could be an easy way to share a digital business card - just bump phones. It could enable museums and shops to give you a more personalised experience. An NFC tag on your bedside table could automatically set an alarm on your phone. And so on. There are probably millions more applications that people more creative than me have already thought of.
And sure, many of these functions can and are carried out using other technologies. For example, you don’t need NFC for your Starbucks loyalty card - the QR code that is displayed on the wallet does the job. Locks exist which use bluetooth.
But these existing solutions are messier - NFC would do what Apple has tried to do throughout all of its design: Make interactions more frictionless. Carrying out actions with just a tap.
More importantly too, not only would Apple christen NFC into a technology that the world will take seriously, but it would create a new share protocol with Android. From airports to museums and stadiums, they would only need to use one technology to reach everyone’s phones - whether Android or iPhone - and developers could make apps work in the same way across platforms. Perhaps this explains why Apple is so reluctant to do it?
Here’s hoping that by iOS 12, Apple manages to make its commercial incentives align with the interests of the consumer.