What is Near Field Communication?

When I first saw a demonstration of Near Field Communication it took me some time before I realized the implications of it. I couldn’t see how holding a phone up to something and getting information was somehow better than just looking the information up through a search engine. I even wrote an article about how we were moving technologically laterally, with technologies doing things different rather than better. It’s still on my computer, this article, right on the desktop. I came to my senses before sending it, but it remains a constant reminder of how little I know about what the next big thing will be. And also it is a reminder to refrain from forming opinions about things (and people for that matter) you don’t understand. So what is NFC?

Near Field Communication is a technology that allows two devices to communicate and exchange digital information simply by being near one another. To put it in simpler terms, this means that by holding your phone up to another phone, a poster, or anything else that is equipped to read and communicate with another NFC chip, you can get information. 

The first thing I noticed when I looked at the specs of a typical NFC chip was that it was, technologically speaking, not all that remarkable. It operates at 13.56 MHz with data rates up to 424 kbps. What those numbers mean is that the NFC chip operates pretty slow. If this was the rate at which your computer operated, you’d be looking for a new computer pronto. The thing I realized after a little thought, though, and the first reason I held off on sending that article I mentioned, was that the amount of information that needs to be communicated through these chips is very small, less than a kilobyte. 

The next thing I thought when I saw NFC technology was, “Well, isn’t that we have QR codes for?” After I got passed the initial hurdle to understanding NFC, that of believing they were slow and therefore undesirable, I realized these things are the future, whereas QR codes are the present. It may take another year or so, as more people buy refurbished and new smartphones, but QR codes will be everywhere. Not “everywhere” like they are now, in newspapers and menus, but everywhere, like on every box of cereal, on every billboard. Hell, I’d be willing to bet that, if it doesn’t exists already, within the next year there will be a billboard that is only a QR code. Of course, I kind of hope that’s not the case because I can only imagine the pile-up that might occur because of it, but it should suffice to say QR codes are here. NFC, on the other hand, is still probably 2 or 3 years away, but its capabilities far exceed that of QR codes.

So that last part might be an answer to what NFC isn’t, but it’s one of the most important distinctions you can make if you are going to understand what they are.

Additional information