Apple patent suggests NFC for iPhone 5

By Jonny Evans

We've been on a roll of iPhone 5 rumors in recent weeks as Apple's [AAPL] speculation explores the next expected big product release, now a new 'gifting' patent filing hints at an NFC (Near Field Communications) future for Cupertino's smartphone, perhaps inside the next model.

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[ABOVE: Patently Apple points to NFC gifting tech...]

iPhone 5? It's a gift...

Patently Apple last week spotted a new patent for gifting media purchased in iTunes from one user to another, using NFC or email to secure the exchange. The patent offers solutions which will let users share iTunes Playlists (at a cost) and also describes ways in which you will be able to pass your gifted track or album to others just by waving your iPhone near theirs. And yes, this also relates to other forms of media content.

I'm not arguing this form of gift-giving has the same cachet as passing a CD or DVD along to a friend, but it's a step toward loosening those digital rights to better reflect the full package of rights you get with physical product sales. The right to bequeath your music and media collection in the event of your death remains something to be fought for, for example, but that's not the focus of this report.

The focus instead is on how within this patent filing Apple has described yet another use for NFC technology. What's also interesting is that the original patent filing was made in 2008. This isn't the first NFC-based patent Apple has filed: Patently Apple has a handy list of these here -- there's loads of these, mainly confined to payment processing implementations.

Building out the NFC ecosystem

What does this tell us? As previously reported the patents suggest Apple's assembling all the pieces it needs to introduce a range of NFC-supporting services when it does eventually field NFC support within iOS devices.

Given that whispers from within the NFC industry strongly suggest the company will introduce support for the (albeit fragmented) standard within the iPhone 5. The only hope is that Apple will choose to support both US and European implementations of NFC when it does.

So why would Apple introduce support for the technology within the quad-core iPhone 5? In my opinion, because support for the tech is reaching critical mass.

Everybody's doing it

Carriers, payment processing firms, and retailers are preparing to embrace NFC.

  • McDonalds is testing support for payments using the technology in some stores in Austria;
  • In London, transportation chiefs are moving to abandon existing pre-payment systems in favor of the digital wallet.
  • Device makers: Microsoft, Nokia, RIM, Samsung are all climbing aboard.

Will older devices be locked out of the new wave? That's doubtful. Barclaycard has now introduced the PayTag service, stickers integrating an NFC chip which can be placed on devices to enable payments using the technology. In other words, no mobile will be left behind.

That NFC forms part of the future matrix for payments shouldn't be in doubt.

In order to accelerate consumer acceptance of these new technologies, it behooves players in the space to deliver solutions beyond simple mobile payments, to deliver solutions which augment everyday life.

[ABOVE: My recent Apple and travel presentation slides.]

Part of life

Apple's patents on ticketing, boarding passes, air travel and gifting are some of the many examples of widening the application of NFC tech into every day life. The more pervasive use of the tech becomes, the quicker it should be to encourage consumers to overcome any suspicions they might have.

In recent conversations with those involved in NFC I have gained the definite impression the industry expects the tech to hit the mainstream next year.

Apple has a reputation for bringing up-and-coming technologies to the mass market. Some may recall the impact of its 1999 AirPort and iBook launches on the then invisible WiFi industry, for example.

Certainly, other devices which support NFC from other manufacturers are already available, but the ecosystem and public awareness of the tech is only now impacting beyond technology fans. This means the time has to be right for the introduction of NFC support within a mass market device.

Apple's latest patent filing once again proves it to be exploring NFC solutions. Should the company enter the space with introduction of NFC support within iPhone 5, then it will be offering a mass market device in tandem with a series of comprehensible and easy-to-use apps that should guarantee a good kick-start to use of these new technologies, at the same time as the industry itself kicks up a gear.

Signing off, I'll admit this is speculative -- Apple may still decide to delay introduction of the new tech to a later model device, allowing others to engage in the heavy lifting required to make the tech mainstream, but the opportunity to deliver the best in class product to match the new systems is the company's to use.


What else can we expect from iPhone 5?
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