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Why Doesn’t NFC Always Play Nice With NFC?

By Joe Levi March 11, 2013, 4:09 pm

Not long ago I told you about my experiences with NFC one year after it became available on phones that I own. In that article I shared how I use NFC and how I don't, but I breezed over one part: making devices talk with each other using NFC. I did that on purpose. I still use NFC almost every day to buy stuff and, as long as the merchant has a terminal that supports it, NFC has always worked perfectly for me.

What about those pesky device-to-device transfers that were supposed to revolutionize the way use our devices to talk to one another? Why didn't I cover that scenario? In short: because it's broken. Sort of.


After that article I participated on a Live Hangout with a whole bunch of our readers where I offered up a Public Service Announcement for all Samsung Galaxy owners: Turn off S-Beam! (1:25:00) but leave Android Beam on!

The basis for this PSA is to maximize compatibility between devices. Yes, I agree with you that Samsung's implementations are in many ways superior to the "stock Android" way. However, they only work with other compatible Samsung devices, limiting not only their utility, but threatening the future of NFC as well.


What cant' we all just get along?

To begin with, people just don't understand what NFC is and how NFC works. I don't blame them, the marketing and hype around NFC makes it sound like it does something it doesn't. So, let's simplify everything: NFC doesn't transfer anything ! Okay, okay, that's not entirely true, it does send very basic information over very short distances. NFC does not, however, send files. If you want to share a video, you're not going to use NFC to send it.

Whoa! Back the truck up, Joe! I've seen commercials that illustrate people doing that!

No you haven't. You may have thought that's what you were seeing, but you weren't. Instead, what you were actually seeing was NFC being used to start the file transfer, but the transfer itself happened over Wi-Fi Direct or Bluetooth.

Therein lies the problem.

Don't kill the messenger

NFC isn't a transport technology, it's more like a handshake. One device goes up to another one and it "shakes its hand", introduces itself, and tells it what it would like to do (share a YouTube video, send a business card, transfer a file, etc.). That sounds like it should work just fine, but NFC isn't really a "hand-shake" either.

Imagine a person walking up to you on the street, grabbing your hand, and telling you about something they're interested in. Sounds kind of weird and somewhat creepy, right? THAT is what NFC is today: some creepy guy you who ran into you in the city.

Adam on NFC

Since NFC only sends very basic information, it's up to the receiving end to handle the content of the request. That wouldn't be a problem if NFC worked like a QR code. With QR codes, the message doesn't change. With NFC, however, the "scan" might only be the start. The message might be something simple like "open a URL", or "here's my business card", or it might be something more complex like "hey, I've got this huge video file that I want to transfer to you, and you okay with that?"

It's ridiculous to think that you could encode an entire video into a QR code. It should sound equally as ridiculous to expect an entire video to be crammed into an NFC tag or tap. But we expect NFC to allow us to transfer videos, right? We also expect NFC to let us play our music through a compatible speaker. Each of these uses is significantly different from the other. Not only that, the manner in which each of these use-case scenarios is implemented varies by platform (not just by OS).

Is it any wonder that things don't work right, let alone the way we expect them to?

Focus on the simple stuff

Instead of trying to do everything all at once, NFC needs to do two things: establish a basic set of "handshake" standards, and emphasize the simple stuff.

Imagine how much easier (and more secure) pairing with a Bluetooth device (Pebble smartwatch, headset, speaker, car, keyboard, etc.) would be if those devices had NFC built-in! Imagine the convenience of being able to share basic, text-based information (business cards, notes, lists, etc.) with anyone else, regardless of platform, as long as their smartphone or tablet included NFC. Imagine being able to share URLs and phone numbers quickly, easily, and ubiquitously. We should be able to do that 100%, cross-compatibly today, but for whatever reason, we can't even get that right.

So, for now, we should forget the complex stuff. Let's focus on the simple, easy, and everyday activities. Once we get those right we can work on interoperability standards that make NFC play together nicely, regardless of manufacturer, OS, or platform.


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