Forget payments -- NFC in the iPhone could be used for a lot more interesting things
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.
Brandon Porco, the chief technologist for defense contractor Northrop Grumman, says that IT will have to try lots of different things and move quickly to keep abreast of evolving employee needs. "Google has it very well-patterned: Launch and iterate."
Although Apple is often accused of not being an enterprise company, it's only in the last few years that Apple has abandoned its enterprise-oriented products. The real story may be that Apple's discovered that making enterprise-focused efforts simply don't deliver a huge return on investment.
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