Near Field Of Dreams

7 Nov 2012

Apple’s iPhone 5 is a superb piece of hardware. Granted, it doesn’t have a 3D camera, a barometer, or a screen the size of a bread board, but design is about choice, and for me at least Apple have consistently come closer than anyone to making the right choices given the constraints of technology and cost. However, there is one area in which I think they’ve missed an opportunity; Near-Field Communication (NFC).

In case you’ve not heard of it, NFC is a technology that allows devices to wirelessly detect small physical tags when brought into close proximity to them, and securely exchange snippets of information. It’s been around for years, and many (most?) top-tier handsets from other manufacturers incorporate it. At present, it’s mostly used for contactless payment, an application that Apple quite correctly points out has yet to take off. However, there are far more interesting possibilities, in the area of ubiquitous computing.

Ubiquitous computing - the area in which I did my pre-doc work and PhD - revolves around integrating computing activities into the real, physical world. In the last decade, it has moved out of the lab and into everyday life, mainly thanks to the meteoric rise of the smartphone. As well as functioning as increasingly powerful, connected handheld computers, these bristle with sensors: multiple cameras, GPS, accelerometers and gyroscopes. These allow modern smartphones to interact with their environment in ways impossible for desktops and laptops. This in turn has opened up a whole range of applications. NFC has the potential to open up a whole host more.

True, there are few existing applications that can take full advantage of NFC. However, I would say this to Apple. You are in a uniquely strong position; a market leading platform, and an army of skilled, motivated developers. Take a leap of faith, introduce NFC on a flagship iOS device, and a lack of apps will not be a problem for long. If you build it, they will come.

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