NFC: the lonely, magical, too-powerful orphan

Credit: Photo by AngryJulieMonday

Why doesn't NFC gain a foothold in the phone market? It actually has too many possibilities.

Here’s a fun little fact: Near field communication, or NFC, is a technology and standard that has been around since 2004. When NFC works, it works like magic. You put your phone on your kitchen counter, and it starts a 4-minute coffee timer. You tap an NFC phone against an NFC speaker, and they’re instantly paired up and streaming. No more docking phones, turning on car modes, or emailing photos to a friend in arm’s reach: just wave or tap.

But NFC is, at best, something that shows up mostly in high-end Android phones, specifically the Google-derived Nexus line. Most phone makers don’t advertise NFC specifically, but their own tap-to-send variants (complete with wink-nod implications). The iPhone doesn’t have NFC chips installed. NFC is installed, but not enabled, in Windows Phone 8 devices. NFC is very low-power and fairly easy to connect and extend, sometimes just with stickers. But it’s just not catching on.

Mark Wilson at Fast Company’s Co.Design imprint picks up on why: it’s _too powerful and full of possibilities. NFC is a mostly blank chalkboard, with two circles drawn on it: “Things Your Phone Might Do” and “Situations To Which Your Phone Can React.” It's a technology that is long on potential and short on immediate benefit. It is, to paraphrase a line Matt Haughey once said to Gina Trapani, like being promised ice cream, only to arrive at a table loaded with rock salt, milk, ice, and shakers.

Bluetooth has an easier existence, because right out of the gate, somebody started marketing a use for short-range connections: hands-free earpieces. Earpieces were what made Bluetooth an essential technology in any cellphone, and once it was installed, it was relatively easy to extend Bluetooth's uses: wireless speakers, file transfers (albeit slow and unreliable), game controllers, and so on and so forth. Google's I/O conferences in both 2011 and 2012 were run through with the promise of NFC as the great linking thread between all the Androids and Google TVs and other devices, but that's just the catch: NFC could do all these things, but there wasn't one central, strong thing it did better than other things. Except, perhaps, passing photos and web pages between very specific phones in an awkward, phone-mounting-phone fashion.

Open-ended technologies and frameworks can be tremendously cool for those willing to spend the time filling in the blanks. Take a look at Android automation app Tasker, which can make your phone do amazing things in whatever situation you can dream up for your phone. It is at least a thousand times more useful and powerful than live Koi pond wallpaper. But you know exactly what the Koi wallpaper will do for you and your phone, and it has been downloaded at least 20 times as often as Tasker. Rock salt does not go down as smoothly as ice cream.

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