NFC : What is it and what is not?

Since NFC related news are all around the blogosphere, (and partly in mainstream media) I would like to make some clearance on the subject.

First; what is NFC? NFC simply stands for Near Field Communications. It is a set of standards for communication over existing contactless interface based on 13.56 MHz. It is an evolutionary approach -rather than revolutionary- to contactless space. Unlike to popular belief around finance sector, it is not all about processing contactless transactions with a mobile cell phone. And unlike the popular belief around mobile developers, it is not a replacement technology over bluetooth.

NFC defines the communication standards and defines the tags specification to read and write over the contactless interface.

NFC is developed and regulated by NFC Forum, which was originally founded by Sony and NXP. Now it has many members like Microsoft, MasterCard, NEC, Renesas, Visa, Nokia, NTT-Docomo, Inside Secure, Innovision and ST. The common point of these companies are that they are mainly hardware and software companies along with service provider giants. That basically means NFC standards are developed by companies who will actually use it.

NFC chips (controllers) are generally manufactured by semiconductor companies. And other hardware companies built products using these NFC controllers. Inside Secure and NXP are the two biggest companies -that I know of- manufacturing NFC controllers. The hardware manufacturer also develops the software API which is used by the operating system of the final product for accessing the hardware resources of the NFC controller.

For example; this is what happens while using the latest Android apps which transfer files over the NFC interface:

The NFC controller embedded in the Nexus S has been integrated into the handset by the manufacturer, Samsung. Samsung also integrates the operating system that is running on top of the handset hardware and manages the basic input/output of the hardware resources for the apps running on the operating system. Underlying this, there is the NFC controller manufactured by NXP. NXP also develops the software API required to use the hardware by the Android operating system. Android creates the abstraction layer for the NFC controller so that other hardware manufacturers can also provide NFC chips by complying this API.

When people talk about making payments by their NFC compatible handset, that means they are using the contactless payment application (generally by Visa or MasterCard) running on the secure element. (the SIM card) The contactless reader communicates with the payment application via the antenna attached to the handset through the NFC controller. So NFC controller here provides the contactless communication to the payment application. The user interface to access the payment application may be in two ways; via the STK or via the operating system of the handset. STK is platform independent, but the other method is hardly linked to the mobile platform.

NFC has 3 modes:

  • Reader mode : In this mode, you can read & write any contactless chip based on ISO 14443. That is good for converting an NFC device into a contactless reader or POS terminal.
  • Card emulation mode : In this mode, application using the NFC interface acts exactly same as a contactless chip. Payment applications of Visa & MasterCard or transport ticketing applications use this mode.
  • Peer to peer mode : This is for exchanging data between two NFC devices like bluetooth, but not necessarily these devices have to be mobile phones.

So, NFC is actually name of the standard, rather than being a product or a technology. The applications/services developed over NFC is up to the developer and its commercial targets.

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