Co.Design

What Keeps NFC From Explosive Growth? A Gateway Product

Near Field Communication should have changed the world by now. Two companies in the space tell us why consumers still just don’t get it.

Even Disney agrees, NFC is one of the closest technologies we have to actual magic. It’s an extremely low-power radio signal that allows data to hop from a poster or sticker to a system like a smartphone. And it can enable all sorts of new user experiences that can connect the digital world to our analog environment. Imagine not just unlocking your car with a wave of your phone but having it launch Bluetooth, stream your favorite Pandora station, launch GPS, and text your spouse that you’re on your way home.

This is the potential of NFC, not tomorrow but today.

Instead, NFC is barely utilized in consumer electronics. We’ve had the standard in place since 2004. The bestselling smartphone in the world, the Samsung Galaxy S3, has an NFC chip embedded standard. And yet, as one NFC company recently told me, maybe 20% of the tech press they met at CES knew what NFC was.

“We demoed a charging mat, and some reporters thought NFC was sending power to the phone,” Kannyn Macrae, director of product management at Tylt, tells me. (Of course, NFC could no sooner power your phone than your car’s radio could power its windshield wipers.)

Tylt is an NFC hardware manufacturer. That basically means they make NFC tags--or radio-powered stickers that you can place on anything--along with custom products like a Bluetooth speaker and cellphone car cradle that incorporate NFC. They recently partnered up with Y Combinator software startup Tagstand. Tagstand is essentially an Android app, switched on by an NFC trigger (sticker), that can activate all sorts of other apps to carry out tasks automatically.

Together, they can empower totally customizable experiences. A Tylt NFC tag on your nightstand can trigger your Tagstand to turn off alerts and activate the alarm. An NFC tag placed at your desk can tell your phone to open Evernote, tether your phone’s 4G to your laptop, mute your ringer, and remind you in 30 minutes to get off Twitter. But the issue both companies have discovered with tags is that they’re, ultimately, too capable.

“We’ve had this app for a long time. We’ve had a huge group of hobbyists--20% use this app on a daily basis. Hobbyists figure out how to use things. They don’t need things simplified,” Tagstand Co-Founder Omar Seyal explains. “[But] one of the things we struggled with early on was, we’d give the app to someone else, and they’d be overwhelmed with what they could do. They didn’t know what they should do."

“You can’t explain NFC like you can’t explain an expansive tech like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. But ‘I’m at the library and don’t need to find a place to plug in’--people can grasp that.”

In other words, NFC tags have been a tabula rasa lacking the necessary consumer context. That’s why Tylt and Tagstand are refocusing a partnership around specific devices. A bluetooth speaker. A phone dock. The funny thing is, even Macrae admits that his special, NFC Tunz speaker is no different than taking a Jawbone Jambox and sticking a cheap NFC sticker on it. But in a sense, to sell the tag, you have to sell the speaker, too.

“Given the low cost of the tags, I’ll add them to any product that makes sense,” he tells me.

It’s an ironic philosophy: Make products better for consumers by narrowing their scope. Telling a consumer less things they can do with something could make them more apt to buy it (or at least understand it).

And no doubt, maybe this graspability is why the focus of NFC today has mostly been around payments. Whether it’s Google Wallet or Apple’s inevitable iPhone payments, everyone wants to know when our smartphones will change the way we buy things. But even this perspective sells NFC short. You’re not just carrying a wallet, you’re carrying an identity--a digital footprint of tastes and preferences that can interact with the analog world. Maybe we do need a special speaker, car mount, or wallet to make consumers begin to understand NFC, but hopefully those products will only feed the platform’s true ingenuity.

Read more on Tylt here. Read more on Tagstand here.

[Hat tip: Techcrunch]

[Image: Illustrations via Shutterstock]

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13 Comments

  • NFC Tags Technology

    Awesome blog guys!  The stamp on circuits are nuts cool.  That is a gamer changer, technology just keeps getting more exciting every year.  The future is apon us :)

  • JP

    I don't get what is so difficult to understand about NFC. First, it is near field meaning you need to nearly touch the two objects together to have it to work. In a world bombarded with possible peer-to-peer connections (e.g. wif-fi, bluetooth), touch is an easy way to filter. It makes object IDs and to a degree passwords irrelevant. The second aspect is communication. With tags communication is limited to a short amount of fixed data, like a bar code, but NFC allows more complex communication scheme, for example to perform secure payment. The magic comes from the fact that one of the two objects can work out of the radio energy of the other. For example a dead phone's mass transit pass working from the energy of a subway turnstile. There is certainly some issues in finding ways to make money with NFC (making it compelling is not sufficient), but on top of that there are still few technological obstacles. Nic Johnson rightfully point out below the difficulty of managing concurrent NFC applications at the device level, but paradoxally NFC also suffer from its inability for each application to configure its "range to trigger".

  • Guestdisqus

    Oh woe is NFC, what a great problem to have! It's TOO capable! There's TOO many applications!

    You pick a problem and sell a solution. You use whatever technology it takes to get there, you don't try to sell a technology itself unless you're the guy who owns the patents.

  • Guest

    This article did nothing to help me understand the advantages in using NFC.
    How about some more examples and visions? If NFC is fantastic, please make me understand it, don't just talk abut people not grasping nor wanting it. We all know consumers don't like too much choice at it makes every choice potentially the wrong one.

  • buzzak

    -Uses less power than bluetooth
    -Can be used to scan from or send feed to virtually anything (electronic and non)
    -don't need to type codes/ no signal issues
    -etc...
    Basically, if "NFC" withers away some day, the technology won't. Like he said in the article... It's like magic.

  • Nic Johnson

    Flash does still exist, but its usage on the internet is in decline. This is because Steve Jobs took way it's ubiquity. No one wants to exclude a significant fraction of their market. Also, (generalisation here) people with iPads tend to have money, so you're going to want to support them -   

  • Nic Johnson

      - You misunderstand my point. A communication technology needs to be ubiquitous, or it will not enjoy developer support. No one wants to chuck money into any significant project which cannot be enjoyed by a large chunk of the target market.

    Apple remains a dominant player in the smartphone market. Until they incorporate NFC, or commit to do so, NFC will not enjoy widespread acceptance, no matter how cool it is. Even if Android owned 90% of the market, the remaining 10% would still be a killer.

    The reason Apple isn't in a hurry to incorporate NFC is twofold. The first is technological. iOS lacks a proper messaging system between apps. iOS apps are for the most part stand alone. Having an NFC listener fire up a suitable app to handle passed in data would require some work on the operating system. The second is a business reason. Apple has hinted through patents that it may be working on an NFC alternative. Apple is not shy about going against standards when it thinks it can do better, look at the dock connector for an example. It can then own the accessory market.

  • Ajay

    NFC may do a lot of things. But question is, how does it fit in my life. If these answers are complicated, then NFC is a tough sell 

     With Bluetooth-4 able to do much of what NCF could, NFC may already be largely irrelevant  

    Having tinkered with Linux for many years and knowing how powerful and flexible it is, I also understood why Linux on Desktop is a hardsell when I bought my first iPhone. 

    People don't want gadgets that are capable. They want ones that have solutions they like

  • StoneCypher

    What's that?

    Tech press don't understand the press?

    I'd say "call the newspapers," but we have been for decades, and they're the tech press, so they don't understand us when we tell them that.

  • Jyrppy

    The writer should get familiar with Nokia phones and accessories. There is an ecosystem of smart phones, BT-Headsets and speakers as well as chargers, that uses NFC!

  • Nic Johnson

    Of course the real answer is Apple. If it's not in an iPhone, it might as well not exist. Witness Flash.

  • Naureen Manekia

    So WiFi didn't exist when it wasn't on the iPhone?  3G didn't exist when it wasn't on the iPhone?  Panoramic photos didn't exist when they weren't on the iPhone?  The world's best selling phone is the Samsung Galaxy S3 (by far).  I would say the features on it, regardless of whether or not the iPhone has them, completely exist.