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Reality Absorption Field: NFC Not Fascinating Cupertino

The road to ubiquity is a rough one for most tech industry standards. Even when they become prevalent, it often is not long before a direct alternative or a general shift in the technology landscape comes along to try to bump them off the hilltop. For example, Wi-Fi is one of the most ubiquitous wireless standards in the world today. But few remember that it had a challenger in its early days, a standard called HomeRF that had the backing of Intel. Apple's endorsement of Wi-Fi was a gift to the standard that pushed it ahead in a race where it never had to look back.

That said, Apple does not grant such gifts often. The company's reluctance to "think different" when it comes to broadly supported industry standards have led initiatives such as DLNA, Blu-ray, UPnP, MirrorLink, Miracast and the Qi wireless charging standard to claim they've received support from virtually "EBA" (Everyone But Apple).

One of the highest-profile standards that Apple has opted not to support is NFC or Near-Field Communication, which allows the transfer of small bits of information, such as a Web address, from a chip so tiny and inexpensive that it can be embedded into credit cards, clothing and foot packaging. Reading NFC tags seems intuitive enough. Just place the phone next to the tag and it can prompt any number of actions.

There's no question that NFC can enable some cool and useful functionality, but Apple has opted instead to support a technology called iBeacons based on Bluetooth LE. Bluetooth is not a perfect substitute for NFC. In fact, companies such as Sony and Nokia use the two as complements, taking advantage of NFC tags to facilitate pairing of Bluetooth devices. However, one can consider a few reasons why Apple is choosing not to play the near-field.

Another radio. Smartphones have historically had to accommodate a wide variety of radios. Already, iPhones must include radios for LTE, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so it's not surprising that Apple would be reluctant to add another radio and up the chip count in its smartphone.

A need to mark. Because NFC radios are so weak, phones need to practically touch a tag in order for its signal to register. This means that their location for precise placement must be clearly marked, something that may not be desirable in many situations. Calling attention to an NFC opportunity often requires even more demarcation -- signage or even another poster.

Serial interaction. NFC transactions work fairly well on a one-to-one basis, but if even a small crowd of 10 people wish to obtain information from an NFC tag, the tenth will have to wait until the first nine have had a go.

Presentation. As anyone who has ever had an NFC-enabled ID badge in their wallet (the "hip bump" move) knows, getting the signal to work through clothing can be a challenge. Particularly with phones getting larger, it becomes more awkward to remove them from a pocket or purse to use them with NFC. Of course, some interactions, such as initiating a payment, may demand that kind of conscious interaction, but others, like passive information collection, may not.

Bluetooth LE overcomes all these limitations; some of the tradeoffs are higher prices and shorter battery life on the part of the broadcasting device. A global standard supported by virtually every mobile phone, Bluetooth hardly needs the fundamental vote of confidence that Apple provided to Wi-Fi or USB in its early days. But the company could be instrumental in advancing the standard's brewing battle for short-range peer-to-peer transactions with NFC.

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