NFC -- No Freakin' Cause
I know this is going to disappoint a lot of people who've invested huge amounts of time, money and energy into the contact-free standard. I know there's galleries and museums and payment firms and all sorts of people who've been waiting for the much promised NFC gold rush, but it just isn't going to happen.
To those clutching an NFC device now: Look, I am listening -- I know there's millions of NFC devices out there; I know NFC is being put inside credit cards and travel cards and you're seeing deployment of NFC readers at some large shops and public transportation systems, but the sad truth is this isn't enough to make the tech sexy.
These things just aren't sexy.
Think about it: who in what has become our heavily-taxed, under pressure, penny-pinching, work-seeking, careful shopping, luxury-avoiding, pleasure-denying, slightly desperate, depressed, TV-addicted, hopeless, leaderless, anti-intellectual culture that's enduring the longest recession for 100-years actually wants to swap the cash in their pocket for invisible money in the sky? Who really wants that?
You do? That's fine -- but what if you recognize that NFC is a battery hog, that its insecure, that the standard isn't universal and even within the pro-NFC lobby the usual stupid corporations who claim to be supporting it can't seem to leave their ego outside of their focus group-driven strategizing meetings for long enough to actually agree to pull in the same direction?
There's an alternative, of course, and that's what we're going to see become more widely deployed within this emerging Internet of things:
BLE -- Big Leap Excites
Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). (Also known as Bluetooth 4.0 and Bluetooth Smart).
The shift's already begun: NFC took a hit when Google Wallet dumped support for loyalty cards and introduced support for BLE within Android (as ever, after Apple had clearly shown its interest in the technology, as history will eventually record because it happens to be true).
PayPal has introduced BLE Beacon. There are truckloads of BLE-supporting watches hitting market (including that awful Samsung thing). Most new smartphones host BLE, few NFC. That's because NFC chips are stupidly low range and need to be capable of handling all the different NFC "standards" out there (did I mention corporate stupidity?)
If you've read this far you might be one of the critics who slam the iPhone for its lack of NFC support. Perhaps you've even invested in a handset that does support NFC. Either way, in very few cases will you actually use the contactless payment tech: but you probably already use Bluetooth from time-to-time.
You yell: "But what about infrastructure!"
There's no BLE infrastructure in retail, you mutter. You say there's already NFC deployments and lots of big interests pushing these systems. I agree this is all true: but you have to think of this in the same way as the long war between HD-DVD and Blue-ray -- the two systems will co-exist for a while but there will be a winner in the end. And it won't be NFC.
- The infrastructure gap disappears when Apple and others introduce small low-powered connected systems that can create infrastructure for various uses within retail parks, shops and other public places.
- That's part of what its quietly discussed iBeacons system is all about.
- Apple has elected to bake the BLE standard inside iOS 7, making the full SDK stack available. In future it will make this widely available, a la USB or FireWire proliferation.
Software is everything
It's not just the standard. Software is everything. Hardware is nothing without it -- and BLE is easier for developers to implement within their solutions. ElGato are cooking up some amazing products that combine ingenious software with BLE, for example. They aren't alone. It only takes a few major names to put their weight behind BLE in order that NFC becomes completely out-manoeuvred.
There will be a certain ironic satisfaction to be derived from this change -- one of the bigger investors in NFC are the very same financial firms whose poor decisions led the global economy into the sad state in which it finds itself today. I imagine a lot of people living with the consequences of those decisions may be pretty happy to imagine the agents responsible taking a hammering in yet another of their investments.
Who could drive the BLE explosion? Apple, Google, Microsoft, PayPal, and almost every device manufacturer are already moving to adopt it. That's gonna drive it. Get real.
We are entering the land of product imagination, in which we gather from time-to-time to consider how new technologies, ideas and processes can be gathered together in new and innovative ways, where product dreamers gather in the firelight to dance the dance of creative expression through future-focused connected solutions design.
For success, BLE (or NFC) just needs to summon some divinely inspired product designers and software specialists to translate their firelight vision into new families of devices that really add value to the human experience.
Ultimately that's what technology is really about, improving existing experiences and opening the doors of perception to enable new ones.
If you're serious about getting into connected devices and wearable tech it's time to begin kicking the tires of BLE. And I'll add a reality check: NFC is likely to struggle along for a while -- you'll see it continue in some deployments, particularly given the vested interests behind it, but it will not be the great enabler of the Internet of things it has been expected to be. NFC will co-exist with BLE, but only as a poor and less popular cousin.
That's why you're seeing BLE appear in lost and found applications, health and fitness apps, automation, security, advertising, and more. BLE is the future. NFC isn't.
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