Waving your phone or tablet at the cash register to pay for groceries might seem like a thing of the future, but if you have a new Android device, you can start living in the future today. The technology is called Near Field Communication (NFC for short), and it’s making cashless, cardless payments possible right now, already available in some stores across the U.S.
NFC chips function similarly to Radio Frequency Identification or RFID chips, which have been in use for years in credit cards and passports. If you have a credit card that allows you to tap it against the card reader instead of swiping to pay, or a metro pass that only requires you to tap it to the front of the turnstiles, then you’ve already been using RFID.
The key difference between RFID and NFC, however, is that RFID is one-way communication, and NFC is a two-way street. There may be an RFID chip embedded in your credit card for example, and the card reader has the ability to detect and read the information stored on that chip. The information can only travel one direction, from the card to the reader; so the reader can’t send information to the card, and the card can’t store any information other than what it was pre-programmed to hold. NFC technology makes it possible for both devices to both read and send information, allowing for a two-way exchange.
The most useful application of NFC so far is cashless payment. Google Wallet is the primary app used for making cashless payments in stores, and Google recently has begun to expand the app’s functionality to allow for phone-to-phone payments as well. In the near future, theoretically, when purchasing a good or service from someone else with an Android phone, then you’ll be able to simply tap your phones together and transfer a predetermined amount from your checking account directly into theirs. This tap-to-transfer functionality (Google calls it Beam) already exists for some media, so users can share websites, playlists, app info and other basic information by simply holding their phones together and tapping the screen when prompted.
Other applications of the technology are starting to pop up, too. Programmable NFC tags or stickers are available online for about $1.50 to $2 each. The stickers can be configured to pass information to a phone or tablet quickly and easily, thus making it much simpler to adjust settings on a device without having to wade through confusing menus. You could, for example, have a tag in your living room with your local WiFi password. By tapping this tag with an NFC-enabled device, guests can immediately gain access to the secure WiFi, without the hassle of manually entering all the WiFi information.
In some other forward-thinking countries (Japan, for one), NFC is already being used for a myriad of other applications. You can check in at airports for a flight by tapping your phone at a kiosk. Public transportation allows for NFC capable devices to be used to pay for fares in order to cut down on lines at ticket offices and turnstiles. Movie posters with tags embedded in them allow you to tap the poster with your device to tags like the ones pictured right and immediately view a preview for the film being advertised. It’s a simple and sophisticated way to add functionality to devices we already carry with us on a daily basis.
The technology is gaining popularity, but not without some bumps in the road. For the time being, the Apple crowd hasn’t been invited to this party. There was plenty of speculation that the hardware chip to enable NFC capabilities would be included in the new iPhone 5, but that rumor turned out to be unfounded.
For now it’s Android-only—and even at that, it’s only Nexus phones and other high-end Android models released in the last year (probably not the free-on-contract models). For wide acceptance and adoption in the U.S., Apple will no doubt have to become involved as well. It’s one thing for your tech-savvy sibling to use NFC on their Android, it’s another entirely to convince Nana to use it on her iPhone.
Other barriers to adoption include security concerns among consumers, banks, and credit card companies tasked with protecting our money. What if you lose your device? Or accidentally install a virus? Can an enterprising hacker access the data without your knowledge? Won’t this make identity theft easier?
These concerns have only partially been addressed. Google Wallet requires the use of a PIN to activate the app each time it’s opened. If someone were to steal your device, they would still need a valid PIN to buy something. It doesn’t completely alleviate the fear of misuse, but realistically offers the same level of protection as most ATM and debit cards.
The hacking issue is less certain. A rogue app could theoretically access the data on the device and send it to a third party, so if you’re going to use it to store sensitive information you should be especially wary of what you install. Similarly, someone could also program their phone or tablet to act like a payment receiving terminal and have it “read” the sensitive information directly from your device without your knowledge. They would, however, have to have their device less than six inches from yours—certainly possible on crowded public transportation and busy sidewalks, but less so in a normal restaurant or place of business. This method of attack is technically already possible with current tap-to-pay credit cards and some specialized hardware, but hasn’t become a serious security concern thus far.
Smartphones and tablets have continued to evolve, and as they do so, they require us to carry less and less in our pockets. NFC may be the next rung on that technological ladder. Maps, cameras, and grocery lists can now all reside on your mobile device, and, if Google has their way, your wallet will be the next thing you leave at home.
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