Almost, Motorola: what OEMs need to do to make NFC take off

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NFC on smartphones has come a long way from its early days. We see it on more and more phones, as well as a multitude of platforms. Despite its growing presence, it’s still yet to really catch-on use-wise, and as a phone feature it probably goes virtually unnoticed by the majority of users out there.

That’s a darn shame, because there’s plenty of fun, useful things you can do with NFC, if only you’re aware of them. Last week, I heard about this Motorola Skip accessory for the Moto X, letting users interact with their phone by means of little NFC tags, either with a wearable tag to quickly unlock the handset, or a series of NFC-enabled stickers that help define usage zones where the phone’s always-listening voice control should be active.

For people like me who would really like to see NFC go mainstream, this was big news. It’s still not quite the effort we need to see, but it’s a significant step, and maybe it will help motivate someone else to just go the little extra distance.

google-wallet-bannerBefore I get into where Skip falls short, let’s look at why there’s yet to be a big NFC hook. The greatest potential for NFC has always been with mobile payments, but it’s also emerged as one of the tech’s biggest stumbling blocks. Google Wallet has made a believer out of me – it works, and works well – yet there’s this despicable effort to suppress Wallet from powerful companies who believe they have a right to be involved in the mobile payment game, and want their own cut of the action.

I’ve long moved past believing Google can ever triumph in this battle, and really the most satisfactory way this could end would be seeing ISIS crash and burn. I’m unable to write much more while also keeping the language PG, so let’s move on.

Phone-to-phone NFC interactions have a lot of potential, too, but it’s very difficult to get users involved with them. I blame a lot of that on NFC support in phones that – while getting better – still doesn’t hit enough devices. And most smartphone owners out there don’t have a clue if their own model even supports NFC, let alone a friend’s. As a result, simple, worthwhile features like Android Beam go unused. I was recently showing a friend with a Galaxy S 4 how to use it – he knew all about the GS4’s eye-tracking and gesture control features, but had no idea NFC was even an option.

There are some implementations that really use NFC well, like wireless speakers that use the feature to set up a Bluetooth connection, but that’s almost unfortunate in how invisible it makes NFC when everything works right – in a flash you’re set up, and don’t have to think about NFC again.

motorola-skipSkip avoids a lot of these issues. It steers clear of that whole mobile payment hornet’s nest. It doesn’t rely on your ability to seek out another user with a compatible phone. And it’s supremely visible, encouraging you to use it over and over again.

So, what’s the big problem with Skip? It doesn’t come with the Moto X.

Well, not really, anyway. For the moment, it’s free with orders placed through the Moto Maker, but that not only rules out orders placed with non-AT&T carriers for the time being, it’s also a limited offer that’s not going to last forever.

And that’s a problem because people just don’t “get” NFC. You have to shove it down their throats before they’ll even begin to appreciate its use. If Motorola isn’t making Skip and NFC key parts of the Moto X experience, once this initial Skip giveaway ends, it’s going to end up like Samsung and its TecTiles – functional curiosities that just go drastically underused.

It’s not like this stuff is expensive, either; give users – ALL users, not just early adopters – a couple tags. You can keep selling them for users who want to buy more – and hopefully once they see what they can do with them, they will – but this isn’t the kind of accessory that users are going to innately understand, and it’ll never catch on unless we get people much more familiar with it.

OK, all that said, there’s at least one big problem I foresee: any phone that’s sold with this sort of baked-in NFC tag experience can’t be a one-trick-pony. NFC is absolutely useful, but if it’s packaged too much like a gimmick – like some last-minute addition to make an otherwise forgettable phone notable – shoppers will see right through it. That also adds to why I’m so upset with Motorola’s squandered opportunity here, because the Moto X is interesting for just so many other reasons, that shipping with Skip would only seem like an awesome bonus.

Come on, Motorola, why don’t you bundle some of those Skip stickers with an upcoming handset? Or Google – make a flexible NFC experience a key part to owning the Nexus 5. But somebody, please, take the initiative to show the world what NFC’s good for.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!