Another year and another iPhone (two actually) and still no near field communication, more commonly known as NFC.
Last year around this time there was a great deal of optimism among tech prognosticators that Apple would add NFC capabilities to the soon to be announced iPhone 5. It didn’t happened. Leading up to the iPhone 5C / 5S announcement this year the tech world could be described as less optimistic but still somewhat hopeful. And again this year, no NFC.
Instead of NFC Apple is pushing Bluetooth low energy (aka Bluetooth LE, Bluetooth Smart and BLE) in place of the simpler NFC. I have mixed feelings about this. Both technologies have compelling features and benefits, some of which overlap. NFC is based on the radio-frequency identification (RFID) standard. The NF in NFC stands for Near Field which it definitely is, in most cases less than a few inches. NFC tags are passive, which is to say no power is required. They are ridiculously small and cost almost nothing. The downside of course is that NFC functionality is very limited compared Bluetooth LE.
Bluetooth LE by contrast is powered, not passive. This is both good and bad, but mostly good. On the positive side of the ledger BLE devices can connect at much larger distances, think tens of feet rather than a few inches. They are capable of sending and receiving far more data than NFC. At the handset level BLE connects directly to the app rather than brokered through the OS like NFC and previous versions of Bluetooth which opens the door for independent sensor integration. The most well known of these are the heart / workout sensors that feed directly into your favorite workout app but also include a myriad of sensors like accelerometers, temperature, pressure, gps, etc. The trade off for all this functionality is power and cost. NFC tags require no power, no batteries, etc. which means initial cost per tag and on-going maintenance can be substantially lower than BLE. And finally, NFC’s range is a few inches at best. In many situations this is seen as a negative, but not always. NFC is ideal for simple short range needs like unlocking a door, configuring Wi-Fi or launching a website from a poster, basically situations where extended range and power requirements are potential liabilities not assets.
Ultimately, I suspect Apple is more focused on the consumer opportunities, especially around commerce and wearable technology, where BLE really shines and isn’t overly concerned about the instances where NFC is clearly superior. When you think about it, odds are the next iPhone wont have NFC either.