Forget payments -- NFC in the iPhone could be used for a lot more interesting things

Credit: IDGNS Boston

When most of us hear the phrase NFC (short for near field communication), the first visual that comes to mind is the virtual or digital wallet (or an iWallet if you're an Apple fan) stored in your smartphone. That's the use case for NFC that gets the most attention - not surprising given the staggering array of companies pushing for NFC transactions.

Google has offered its Google Wallet service since September 2011 with a handful Android phones that include NFC, and a range of Android manufacturers have built NFC chips into their devices. RIM began shipping NFC BlackBerry handsets over a year ago. Three of the four national carriers in the U.S. (T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon) have teamed up to create their own mobile payments system known as Isis that will use NFC. A new consortium created by several major retail and dining chains known as MCX (Merchant Customer Exchange) is hoping to create a major digital wallet format as well -- MCX hasn't mentioned NFC specifically, but it seems likely that the organization will support whatever format(s) the nascent mobile payment industry settles on.

Apple is expected to be working on its own digital wallet system and there have been on-again/off-again rumors that it might be based on NFC. Apple certainly has the payment-processing infrastructure it needs, but we probably won't know until tomorrow's big Apple announcement whether the iPhone 5 will include NFC support (the latest rumors suggest not), or even that Apple would pick NFC as a payment mechanism.

But NFC has capabilities beyond consumer purchasing, some of which could have major impact on enterprises.

Some car makers have experimented with using NFC key fobs, which automatically unlock a car and allow the driver to start it without a traditional key in the ignition. Companies have begun offering NFC-based residential locks. NFC tags can be integrated into traditional office building lock systems with greater flexibility than RFID or magnetic strip counterparts. Trials have been run in several countries using NFC transaction technology for mass transit systems. The technology can also be used to transfer -- or beam -- content between two mobile devices.

Another, even more ingenious way to implement NFC in the enterprise is using NFC-enabled devices or cards to serve as part of a two-part authentication system for logging into workstations, connecting remotely using a VPN connection, or accessing other secure network and or cloud resources.

Two years ago, Apple was reportedly working on ways to use NFC as a login mechanism for Mac users -- you'd put your iPhone next to a Mac and could be automatically logged into it. The system would let you log into any NFC-equipped Mac, and would call up your user account with associated info, like bookmarks, documents, and apps. 

Essentially, Apple was supposedly working on creating an NFC version of the Windows To Go feature Microsoft has built into Windows 8.

This isn't a far-fetched concept. Apple has built the ability to store your entire user account on a removable drive -- the key functionality of Windows To Go -- for the better part of a decade. The feature, known as external accounts, has been available to Mac network administrators for years as an extension of Apple's mobility options for network accounts. Although it is based around Mac OS X Server, which Apple has been repositioning as a prosumer or small business solution rather than an enterprise server platform, it could be enabled in an Active Directory environment with some effort.

Most likely, NFC would be used simply as a digital key and Wi-Fi would most likely manage access to the stored user account. Current Macs that support the AirDrop feature in Lion and Mountain Lion can transfer files directly if they're in proximity to one another without using a Wi-Fi network, so that feature could certainly facilitate access to everything in your user account (Apple is expected to unveil a similar technology dubbed AirPlay Direct for streaming content between devices without the need of a network).

Apple's recent acquisition of AuthenTec brings the company a number of additional advantages -- including work in NFC security technologies. 

Will Apple ever release this kind of functionality? As the recent Apple/Samsung trial proved, Apple works on many technologies that it doesn't ship. 

Even if Apple doesn't go down this road, it certainly shows that there is a lot of potential in NFC beyond mobile payments. In fact, the best uses of NFC in business and enterprise environments may have little to do with consumer solutions or mobile payments.

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