Android Guy Weekly: Why aren’t NFC-Enabled Phones Compatible with Each Other?


Have you ever wondered why it’s so difficult to transfer something from one phone or tablet to another using NFC? Isn’t NFC supposed to make everything easier? I’ve got the answer to that question, along with a look back at another “transport mechanism” in this week’s episode of the Android Guy Weekly.

In the days before NFC we had IrDA

Long, long ago (okay, not that long ago) we had something called IrDA that literally let you transfer stuff at the speed of light! Infrared light, to be precise… Who knew the speed of light was so slow! IrDA transfers took a long time, but with them you could “beam” your business card from one device to another very easily — as long as you were sending it to someone running the same OS. Since I was running Windows CE back then, that meant I could send my business card to almost nobody, since everyone else was running Palm.

Luckily, someone wrote an app (we called them “programs” back them) that let you select your target device, and formatted your content appropriately. I could send stuff from my Windows CE device to another Windows CE device, a Palm (or Handspring Visor), or even an Apple Newton (yes, I even owned one of those). I used that program in real life at least four times. In retrospect, that was probably a big waste of time. But I could do it!

IrDA is Dead, Long Live NFC

When was the last time you saw an IrDA port on a phone or tablet? IrDA is dead, but has NFC “replaced” it?

There’s a common misconception that NFC is a transport mechanism. It’s really not. Think of NFC more like a QR code that you can read without using your camera. QR codes can have URLs, phone numbers, even business cards embedded in them, but bigger things (pictures, music, videos, even documents)  take a lot more space than you can fit in a bar code. The same goes for NFC.

With Android, you can use the NFC chip in your phone or tablet to trigger an “intent” and launch a particular data source in its default handler app on another device. For example, if I’m watching a YouTube or Google Play Video and I want to “share” it with someone else, I can tap my NFC-enabled device to theirs, and theirs will understand that it should open the video in the correct app — but it’s not transferring the video, it’s simply telling the app where to go to get the video (from the Internet) so it can them play it.

There are some things that you can actually transfer, like pictures. NFC, however, isn’t carrying the image from the source to the destination, it’s just starting the transfer request. The transfer itself is handled by Bluetooth — except when it’s not.

Although Android Jelly Bean uses NFC to start a Bluetooth file transfer, Samsung’s Galaxy S III uses Wi-Fi Direct — which is arguably a better transport mechanism than Bluetooth. Unfortunately, the two methods (although invoked the same way with the intent to accomplish the same thing) aren’t compatible with each other. What’s more, Windows Phone uses something else entirely.

And then there’s Apple who has yet to get into the NFC game and will probably “think different” rather than making their solution work with everything else.

At least we can still email stuff to each other, right?

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy". By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video. Read more about Joe Levi here.