What Is NFC and Why Should I Care?

Tech blogs have been buzzing about Near Field Communication for some time now, hailing it as a major player in the future of portable electronics. In fact, the current wave of rumors indicates that the iPhone 5 might make use of NFC in some capacity.

So what is this voodoo technology that might or might not show up in your next iPhone? Will it make your life better? Should you be excited about it? Read on to find out!

Meet NFC: Magic from the 1800s

If you’re a sports fan, NFC stands for National Football Conference. Naturally, technology nerds had no idea this abbreviation was already taken so they chose to call a new form of close-range communication technology, “Near Field Communication”.

At heart, NFC is exactly what it sounds like. A way for devices to communicate when they are near each other. In fact, two devices using NFC can not only share data, but also power. You read that right, NFC is capable of wirelessly transmitting power to an external device. So device “A” in your hand has no battery but is actually being powered by device “B” on your desk.

Wireless energy transmission sounds like it’s straight out of Star Trek, but the ideas in place here are based on principles discovered by Michael Faraday in 1831! NFC accomplishes its magic through the process of electromagnetic induction. Basically, two loop antennas share a magnetic field generated by the initiator device. Any flux in that magnetic field can cause an electrical current to be produced in the target device. In fact, “near field” is actually a designation for a specific region in the field of electromagnetic radiation coming from the antennas (as opposed to far field).

If both devices are independently powered, each can take its turn generating a magnetic field, which is in turn received by the other device and the result is an exchange of data between the two. This is known as “Active Communication Mode”.


Cell phones with NFC will be able to connect in less than a second

NFC vs. Bluetooth

That was a whole lot of geek speak so if you’re scratching your head at this point, don’t worry, you pretty much don’t need to understand any of it to get the gist of what NFC is all about.

The simple version is that NFC is a way for two devices to wirelessly communicate. We’re surrounded by devices that communicate without wires so this probably isn’t very exciting or mind-boggling to hear.

In fact, our iPhones already have something very similar built into them: Bluetooth. The very first question that I had upon reading about NFC was how it deferred from Bluetooth, surely it’s just newer and better right? The answer is surprising.

As it turns out, Bluetooth is effective over a range of within ten meters, while NFC only works in ranges of under 0.2 meters. Similarly, the speed of Bluetooth is around 2.1 Mbit/s while that of NFC is only 424 kbit/s. So the technology that is already built into your iPhone is faster and works over longer distances than the technology that you should be excited about coming in the future! What gives?

Benefits of NFC over Bluetooth

One of the clear benefits of NFC is connection time. Have you ever paired a Bluetooth device with your phone? It often requires multiple steps and can take several seconds for the actual pairing to take place. With NFC devices the connection is established automatically within a tenth of a second! NFC can even be used in conjunction with Bluetooth to automate and speed up the pairing process.

Further, the shorter range of NFC is actually touted as a benefit. Since you use NFC for distances of only a few centimeters, the likelihood of interference is much lower.

A third benefit is power consumption. When both devices are powered, NFC consumes much less power than typical Bluetooth (though Bluetooth Low Energy is close to NFC in its efficiency). However, in the instance described above where one device is receiving its power from another, NFC is actually less efficient than Bluetooth.

Which Is Better?

Though common, this question is not exactly an appropriate one as it requires a choice of one technology over the other in all circumstances. However, Bluetooth and NFC are distinct technologies and each possesses its own unique strengths and weaknesses.

In the real world we don’t have to choose one over the other but can enjoy the benefits of both working synergistically and seamlessly in the same device!

The Revolution: How NFC Will Change Everything

Now that you have a basic grasp of what NFC is and how it can co-exist with Bluetooth, you’re probably still wondering why any of this is good news. Yet another way for phones to communicate doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as the potential for an Angry Birds TV show right?

To answer this, consider what this technology represents based on the information above. NFC allows us to make near instantaneous wireless electronic connections and data transfers at close range. NFC in a cell phone means that the thing in your pocket is suddenly much better equipped to communicate with the electronic devices around it.


No credit card required, just swipe your phone.

The app revolution has skyrocketed the usefulness of our phones in the digital world with games, web browsers and productivity tools. NFC will do the same for the usefulness of our phones in the real world. Credit cards, security badges, plane tickets, all can be potentially replaced with simply holding out your cell phone.

There are educational and fun implications as well. A museum or landmark could transmit information to your phone about the location and connecting with someone nearby on Facebook will be extremely fast (like Bump only better). As with any new technology implemented on the iPhone, developers will jump on NFC like a pack of wolves and create amazing social games and helpful utilities that we haven’t even dreamed up yet.


Will Near Field Communication technology be present in the iPhone 5? I honestly have no idea. You can safely bet though that Apple is indeed looking into it. Several speculators have pointed out that if and when iPhones are used in everyday purchases, suddenly Apple is conveniently positioned to earn a small chunk off of a huge portion of transactions all over the globe; from cheeseburgers to toothbrushes. Do you think Apple could resist such a tempting future?

Leave a comment below and tell us what you think of NFC. Will it really change the world as much as innovators and early adopters are promising? Better yet, do you think we will we see NFC in the iPhone 5 later this year?

Photo Credits: Yutaka Tsutano and Sevenfloorsdown.