What Apple's new AirDrop data sharing says about NFC

And why one analyst believes Apple will still adopt NFC -- eventually

Apple's mobile development chief Craig Federighi poked fun at Android when he announced AirDrop data sharing technology for iOS on Monday.

"AirDrop is the easiest way to share [data] with people around you," Federighi said at the opening of the Worldwide Developers Conference. "There's no need to wander around the room bumping your phone."

His remark got hearty laughs from Apple developers in the room, who were undoubtedly familiar with Android Beam, a combination of near field communication (NFC) and Bluetooth data sharing technology that has been available for more than a year and is popularized in some Samsung Galaxy S4 TV commercials.

The NFC technology in various new Android phones allows users to swap photos, songs and documents by touching, or nearly touching, two compatible Android phones together. Android Beam initiates the sharing with NFC, which kicks off a faster Bluetooth connection.

With AirDrop, there's no NFC involved, according to Apple's website, just Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. "Just tap Share, then select the person you want to share with," Apple's website says. "AirDrop does the rest using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. No setup required. And transfers are encrypted, so what you share is highly secure."

Based on how Wi-Fi works today, even in emerging fast 802.11ac, also called 5G Wi-Fi, AirDrop could allow users to be as far apart as different rooms in a house or apartment, and up to 100 meters in some situations.

While that might sound like an advantage over NFC, which Apple has notably left out of its iPhones thus far, at least one analyst said Apple is still likely to adopt NFC at some point, if not in the next iPhone expected to launch in the fall.


"AirDrop is an elegant way to share files among iOS users, but it still leaves me unable to easily transfer with other OS users," explained Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Gartner. "So I think Apple cannot avoid NFC, and to be honest, I do not think that's [Apple's] plan either."

Milanesi considered Federighi's joke about not needing to bump phones for AirDrop to work as a subtle indicator that NFC won't surface in the next iPhone. But down the road, she predicted, NFC will come to the iPhone.

"AirDrop gives current iOS users a way to share, especially if they will not update to the new hardware when it gets NFC," she said. "So in a way, AirDrop helps keep older hardware relevant once NFC is integrated in the devices."

Many analysts have said Apple was wise to avoid NFC in the 600 million iOS devices in use, given the slow adoption of mobile wallet services that rely on NFC, such as Google Wallet and Isis.

NFC is inherently more secure than data transfers over Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, even if encrypted, because of the short distance for making a connection, which is very hard to intercept, several analysts and banks adopting NFC have said. The NFC specification requires two NFC devices to be less than 4 inches apart to transmit data.

"Even though AirDrop is encrypted, it uses Wi-Fi, and the first question I'd ask is about secure connections," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "With NFC, people a block away can't decipher my data."

Some analysts said smartphones running NFC, which is widely used in Asian countries for transportation and retail purchases, will increase in the U.S. in late 2015, when U.S. merchants are expected to upgrade to point-of-sale terminals to accept smart chip card transactions that are compatible with smartphone NFC.

Aside from not having to bump devices, it isn't clear how much faster AirDrop data transfers would be than using Android Beam. Apple's website demonstrates in a video an AirDrop sharing of an unspecified amount of data in a couple of seconds. The size of the file being shared is what will determine the speed of a transfer.

With 802.11ac theoretical speeds of up to 1.3Gbps (but much slower in practice), AirDrop transfers could be very fast when done in a peer-to-peer fashion over a common Wi-Fi network. By contrast, NFC is relatively slow, topping out at 424Kbps, although Bluetooth 4.0 is much faster, at up to 25Mbps.

Still, mobile wallet transactions are usually comprised of small data files and can make an NFC transfer in less than a second, while transferring an entire album of songs or photos over Android Beam can take a few seconds.

This article, What Apple's new AirDrop data sharing says about NFC, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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