Home opinion-and-analysis Cornered! Apple's Passbook excuse for NFC-free iPhone 5 rates a 'fail'

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For many years Apple has been ahead of the curve when it comes to new computing technologies. It was the first to adopt the mini floppy disk, and the first to abandon it. It led in the incorporation of WiFi and Firewire and, in the MacBook Air the use of flash storage instead of spinning drives for internal storage.

 

Yet on near field communications (NFC) it is now well behind the curve. NFC was expected in the iPhone 4 and never appeared. It was very widely expected to be a feature of the iPhone 5 but there is still no sign of NFC in Apple's plans.

In an interview with AllThingsD immediately after Apple's unveiling of the iPhone 5, senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller justified the absence of NFC by saying that Apple's Passbook app that will roll out with iOS 6 on September 19 "does the kinds of things customer need today."

The sceptic's view of this might be that Apple faced some undisclosed technical barrier to implementing NFC in the timeframe it had set itself, but given the number of other manufacturers that have put NFC into their phones this seems unlikely.

The cynic might suspect that Apple has decided it does not need NFC to ensure that the iPhone 5 will sell by the million and has deliberately held off adding NFC until the iPhone 6 in order to ensure a significant differentiator for the next generation of the product.

According to Apple's announcement of iOS 6 Passbook appears to be nothing more than a means of organising content with bar codes and displaying these on the screen.

"Passbook lets you scan your iPhone or iPod touch to use a coupon, get into a concert or check into your hotel. Passbook automatically displays your passes on your Lock Screen based on a specific time or location, so when you walk into your favourite coffee shop your loyalty card appears and you can scan it to buy a coffee or check your balance."

That functionality already exists today, on Apple and other platforms, but implemented in specific ways for different applications. For example an airline boarding pass can be sent as an email, displayed on the screen and scanned. Yet despite this there is considerable momentum behind NFC.

It seems likely that the Comm Bank was anticipating NFC in the iPhone 4 when it launched its Kaching mobile banking app in late 2011. Instead it had to offer users, at a cost of $50, an NFC enabled case, the iCarte into which to slip their iPhone.

The web site NFCWorld.com has a long list of NFC capable phones available today, and equally long list  of those that have been announced but are not yet on the market.

Deloitte in its Telecommunications Media and Technology predictions released in January was extremely bullish about NFC in mobile devices. It forecast that in 2012 shipments of devices equipped with NFC would grow about 100 percent to almost 200 million. "In 2013 there may be as many as 300 million NFC smartphones, tablets and eReaders sold. This compares to a 2010 when fewer than 50 million devices were purchased," Deloitte said.

"In the long run, NFC-enabled devices are likely to find a wide array of uses – especially for payments. But even in 2012, NFC capability will likely be used for a surprisingly diverse range of non-payment applications, including gaming, security, authentication and information."

Only last month Australian company NFC Wireless announced that it had got 50 businesses in the ski resort of Falls Creek trialling NFC to provide information to potential customers.

Whatever the claims for Passbook, it is a proprietary application as opposed to NFC, which is a basic communications technology, like Bluetooth or WiFi that any application developer can exploit. With the number of Android phone shipments now exceeding those of the iPhone the lack of NFC support on the iPhone, and no indication of when it will be added, developers might be looking first to NFC.

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Stuart Corner

 

Tracking the telecoms industry since 1989, Stuart has been awarded Journalist Of The Year by the Australian Telecommunications Users Group (twice) and by the Service Providers Action Network. In 2010 he received the 'Kester' lifetime achievement award in the Consensus IT Writers Awards and was made a Lifetime Member of the Telecommunications Society of Australia. He was born in the UK, came to Australia in 1980 and has been here ever since.

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