The Galaxy S III’s TecTiles: Gimmick or Greatness?

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Judging from my editorials this month, you’d think webOS suddenly got exhumed from the grave. I’ve mentioned Palm’s defunct operating system in a piece on new smartphone platforms, on Android multitasking, and in an editorial about what it means to own a unique phone. All in the past two weeks.

That’s a lot of exposure for an OS that’s fallen by the wayside, but it’s not just because I’m a former devotee of the platform. It’s because that’s the natural order of things when an OS is either taking its last few breaths or walking the path to open source (or both). Other OEMs are snapping up webOS’ good ideas and building them into their own products. I’ve talked about it from the software perspective a lot: multitasking, multiple-account integration, and universal search, the key features that made Palm stand out in 2009, have now become standard across most platforms. Some implementations even visually resemble what webOS offered.

I haven’t talked much about Palm-aping hardware, because it hasn’t been too common. Samsung, however, is starting to change that. The Galaxy S III announcement brought us a “polished river stone” of a device, the first smartphone in its class to offer integrated wireless charging. These are attributes which will sound familiar to any former owner of a device in the Palm Pre family. And while we haven’t yet laid eyes on a Samsung-sourced wireless charging solution for the Galaxy S III, we’re starting to see something related: location-based NFC tags.

How’s that related to wireless charging? Back when HP was still feeling aspirational about marketing its new Pre 3 and Veer smartphones, it promised that future iterations of its wireless Touchstone charging docks would be location-aware. Customers could designate one as “office” and one as “home,” and the phone would use different Exhibition modes to display context-sensitive information when it was docked to each one.

What it gained in ability, it lost in aesthetics.

What Samsung has done with the Galaxy S III is similar, and simpler. According to scuttlebutt, we’re going to be waiting at least until September for Samsung to roll out the wireless charging pad and battery door for the phone. In the meantime, the company apparently sees no reason to keep the location-based NFC fun under wraps: it’s taken charging completely out of the equation and given Galaxy S III owners a new, cheap, fun toy in the process. Enter TecTiles.

Something else to buy for the gadget geek in your life.

The TecTiles themselves are pure simplicity: they’re just Samsung-branded versions of the NFC tags Joe Levi talked about in his three-part video series a few weeks back. If you haven’t watched that series, you should: it’s a great primer on NFC tags, and it highlights the sort of fun and utility they can bring to your life. Joe was able to nab the tags in his collection for pretty cheap. By branding them and sticking them in pretty packaging, Samsung’s been able to put something of a premium on TecTiles, and sells them for $15 per pack of five- still a pretty good price for the kind of functionality they provide.

What, exactly, is that functionality? Well, according to the retail packaging, TecTiles can be “programmed in 4 different categories to perform a variety of tasks.” Among others, those tasks include:

  • turn WiFi or Bluetooth on or off
  • launch your favorite app
  • check in or update status on social media
  • call home
  • display a message
  • send a prewritten text to a friend

All of which sounded great, so when Samsung provided a few sample packs to us at the Galaxy S III’s NYC Launch Event, I was excited to give them a try. Upon returning home to Boston, I installed the TecTiles app and immediately set about using them for the one purpose that immediately jumped to mind: Foursquare.

Get ready to check in to CONVENIENCE!

As most people know, Foursquare allows users to “check in” to local businesses when visiting coffee shops, bars, movie theaters, etc., and compete with other users for points based on how often they all check in. The person who checks in most frequently at an establishment gets crowned its Mayor, and some businesses reward this achievement with small prizes, like free mozzarella sticks once a month, or whatever. It’s lame, but it’s fun.

Checking in usually requires opening the Foursquare app, waiting for a GPS fix, selecting the location from a list, and hitting “check in.” It’s not difficult, but it’s slightly cumbersome. With TecTiles, users can reduce those steps to just two: tap your phone on the TecTile that’s assigned to your local Dunkin Donuts or whatever, and tap Check In. Everything else, including opening the Foursquare app, is taken care of for you.

If you’re a Class-A Geek, you can even stick a TecTile above your front door and check in at home.

So, it’s a more convenient means of executing a common task. More convenient, that is, after you’ve programmed the TecTile, made sure you haven’t stuck it on something metal (which would make it malfunction), and found an out-of-the-way spot for it that won’t be seen by the public but is still easy to get to. Oh, and by the way: every time you use it, if anyone catches you, you’ll be asked what strange thing you’re doing with your phone. It’s kind of like using Google Wallet in public, except even more ostentatious.

Ever play “spot the TecTile?” It’s fun.

So it’s not all that convenient after all, but it is cool, in the sense that anything NFC-related is cool because it’s still rarely seen.

But, for me, cool hasn’t been enough. Over the past few weeks using TecTiles, I’ve been a little let down by the suite of features they provide. It’s not that I actively dislike them; I just don’t see as much utility in them as I’d like. And I’ve actively been searching for ways to use them.

So, I use my TecTile collection to check in to places I frequent, and to toggle my morning alarm when I put my phone down on my bedside table. It’s handy for those things. I hate fiddling with alarm menus, so it’s nice to just drop my phone on the table when I’m going to bed, and know that it’s got my back in the morning.

Guard my Yankee Candle whilst I slumber, phone.

But I could do that just as well with a recurring alarm setting. The TecTile isn’t saving me that much trouble. And that’s the thing: I expected to be able to do more. Sure, I can program a tile to call someone when I tap my phone on it, or to open a webpage, or to send a pre-written SMS … but why would I want to? I can do all of those things just by, you know, using my phone. With the added bonus of not being tethered to a single spot while I do it.

I get what Samsung -and in a larger sense, the NFC movement in general- is going for here, and I appreciate it. There’s a lot of potential in location-based automatic actions like this. But we’re not going to reach that potential until the integration between NFC tags and OSes matures a little. And the first step in that process will likely be via integration with charging solutions. When you can drop your phone on a TecTile- or Samsung-branded powermat and your phone automatically displays your appointments for the day (if it’s an office dock) or starts playing your favorite tunes (if it’s a bedroom dock) while it’s being charged, that’s the future. A future Palm wanted to deliver but couldn’t. A dream I hope Samsung will deliver on soon.

In the meantime, I’ll keep stealthily checking in on FourSquare with my corner-mounted TecTile … until the Dunkin Donuts police come get me.

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Do you use NFC tags -TecTiles or otherwise- in your daily life? Drop us a line in the comments and let us know how NFC makes your day easier.

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HP Pre3 Touchstone photo source: MrKal_El

Samsung Galaxy S III wireless charging news source: The Verge

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!