What Is Near Field Communication (NFC)?

by Dawn Van Dyke on August 07, 2013

Near Field Communication (NFC) is a more and more common smartphone feature, but just what is NFC? This short-range, low-power wireless communication technology creates something like WiFi-lite for your NFC smartphone to communicate with other NFC-enabled devices within a range of a few centimeters.

Whether you call it zapping, tapping, beaming, or bumping, you may already be using NFC technology to share photos or address book files instantly and wirelessly. Not only can you use NFC to pass files like movies between compatible phones, but there are new uses being developed every day. Soon you'll be able to use your smartphone as a public transportation fare card, a hotel room key, or even as a replacement for your car key.

You may be thinking, how is this different than Bluetooth, which we use today for ear buds, car sound systems, and more? I remember that nearly 10 years ago, a tech-savvy boy wanted to exchange phone numbers in a crowded bar. It wasn't quite as suave as just bumping phones. First, my Bluetooth wireless wasn't on, so he had to wait while I dug through my phone settings to turn on the Bluetooth. Then, our phones had to find, recognize and pair to each other. Then we could identify what file (in this case phone numbers) to share. He probably should have settled for a napkin.

Today, if that's still his pickup game, I hope he has moved on to using NFC smartphones to impress the girls. NFC technology uses less power than Bluetooth, so it is likely already turned on in the phone settings. This innovative technology automatically connects to other NFC signals, so there is no 'pairing' step necessary to ready a file exchange. Because the smartphone's NFC signals have to be closer together than Bluetooth, it is a more secure file transfer. After all, you don't want your phone number picked up by the wrong person. Of course these days, he'd probably just have asked for my twitter handle.

NFC For Smartphones - Google Wallet App

Exchanging phone numbers is just the beginning for NFC smartphones. Already, with apps like ISIS or Google Wallet, NFC smartphones can be used to make purchases in stores, at food trucks, and even from vending machines. Whenever you see a contactless payment logo, such as the Google Wallet logo, you can leave your wallet in your pocket. Instead, checkout like normal and complete the transaction by just tapping your phone to the register. Of course, you'll have to have set-up an account with the app of your choice and linked at least one credit card or other payment option. Wirefly's Scott Lewis created a video demonstration of how easy it is to create a Google Wallet account and make your first purchase with the virtual wallet.

One of my favorite, personal uses of NFC technology is Samsung TecTiles. These are little stickers about the size of a thumbnail that have NFC embedded in them. Each tile, or sticker, can be programed by your phone to trigger certain smartphone actions. For example, you might put one of these stickers on your car dashboard. Just program the tile so that with a single tap when you get into the car your phone settings change to turn on Bluetooth, open the Google Maps app, and turn up the ringer volume. You could even set-it to put your smartphone into airplane mode while you drive, so you won't be tempted to use your phone at all behind the wheel. The choices are nearly endless, and that's just in the car. Put these stickers anywhere to quickly adjust phone settings, open apps, and more. You can get a pack of these little white and blue stickers from Wirefly, but first check out Scott Lewis' review of the Samsung TecTile app to see just how easy this technology is to use and all the different ways to use it.