(looking for a place to publish this. If you're an editor, I welcome help trimming my usual verbosity)
NFC is a technology poised for a consumer explosion. That could be good and bad ... and probably will be both.
NFC is a radio wave technology for the exchange of data over very short ranges (4 cm). Like Bluetooth and Wi-fi, NFC uses radio waves, but at very low power. The same technology as contact-less payment cards. NFC devices can also read passive devices such as proximity cards and RFID tags, inductively supplying energy sufficient to power the other device. If both devices are powered, communication over slightly longer ranges (up to 20cm) could be possible.
NFC phones are already in use in a number of locations outside the US, such as transit payment systems in Japan. The latest handset from Google, the Nexus S, has NFC, the iPhone5 has been rumored to have it, and then to not have it. Even for those who would not upgrade just for NFC, we may soon see retro-fit devices in the form of replacement memory cards with NFC support built in. These probably will only be effective with certain phone models, depending on factors such as metal in the phone shells - which might shield the antennae from working.
If you search around the usual places, there's not a lot of information (yet) about NFC and how we can expect it to work for us. Which could mean there's still time for our opinions to be heard about how it should be.
Many in the US have already seen the terminals we can "wave" special proximity smart-cards over, enabling a transaction "in mid air" as widely featured on commercials for certain payment cards. These same or very similar terminals will work with NFC enabled phones as well. One day soon, we will probably be able to wave our phone across such a terminal at the end of our grocery check-out line, and not only use NFC to authorize payment from our bank card, but also to receive a fully itemized and detailed digital receipt document, paperlessly.
That alone will certainly simplify my own life noticeably. Like a lot of people, I actually keep paper receipts for at least a few weeks, stashing them in an actual old shoe box, and occasionally searching through the box when something needs to be returned or exchanged. Several times each year, I go through the box, throwing most into a shredder, but saving a few into my "next year's taxes" folder. Of course it would be even better if I started using a financial record keeping application, too. Digital receipts might be just the incentive.
The radio technology of NFC is similar to that of the anti-theft devices for which we are getting used to walking through "gates" of detection antennas as we enter and exit stores. There is little doubt that many of the same "gates" will soon also capture any identity data that's available in mid-air as we pass. Where we've been (and what we've bought) are extremely interesting information commodities in commerce right now. Like a scene right out of certain science fiction movies, we may soon find ourselves treated to advertising tailored specifically to us as we pass by. Some billboards we walk past will be capable of talking specifically to us, even by name! And perhaps more importantly, they will know what we have recently purchased, and probably more about our purchase histories than even we can remember. These targeted advertisements could happen even without NFC, using the tiny passive RFID data tags already placed into some merchandise. In fact, NFC technology is somewhat compatible with RFID technology, which may bring us features like being able to directly scan products with our phones while inside stores, for pricing, inventory, and more. We may be able to snip out some of our old RFID tags, to recycle as shopping list reminders. What's even more attractive to me personally is that we may be able to use our phones to finally locate those annoying lost security tags which occasionally set off the in-store alarms when we walk in.
There definitely are NFC features already imagined which can be time- and work-savers for typical consumer users. Here's a scenario I imagine from my own future, making a stop for gas:
At the pump-based payment station, there's a rubberized holder where I can set my phone or tablet down safely, at a readable angle. [Once charging-mat technology becomes common, these may even supply a little charging current to any mobile device as a courtesy service.] I rest my phone on it, and the nearby ATM-like keypad asks for a PIN. My phone displays several options: PIN, one-time-PIN, Repeat customer, and Cancel. I have not stopped at this particular station before, so I choose "one-time-PIN", and my phone invents and shows me an ephemeral PIN. I enter that into the terminal keypad, and both screens confirm. Once the connection is confirmed, I put the phone back in my pocket, and begin pumping gas. With the pump latch set, I can walk to the "mart" to grab a bottle of water and maybe a snack. Inside the "mart" I encounter a self-checkout terminal, which has a similar "shelf" where I could place my phone, but I notice there's also a hip-level pad, which I choose to brush momentarily against. The checkout station recognizes my phone and asks for my PIN, which I can remember for five minutes, so I enter it. (Or my phone can remind me, or I can have it generate another new PIN) I scan my items, press a "done" key on the station, and depart. Back outside, the payment station offers to review my receipt so far. When pumping is done, I press YES and it itemizes all my purchases in a single transaction. Even though my phone is still in my pocket and out of NFC range, my identity is known, and the receipt information can be forwarded to me via email, and made available to my bank's online banking and record keeping. If I was anxious to see this receipt, I could have put my phone on their cradle before completing the transaction, and expect to receive it immediately.
On another day, I visit a regular gas-stop, to which I've been many times (perhaps it's on my commute route). Ignoring their holder/shelf, I simply turn so that my phone, in my pocket, is presented to a hip-level antenna/pad. The screen greets me by name, and I begin the pumping process. I have pre-authorized this familiar station, and maybe one or two other regular stops, and chosen not to even use a PIN. When I'm done, I simply leave, confident that my receipt will be in my virtual shoebox if I ever wish to look for it.
My car, on the other hand, knowing that the filler door has been operated, later interrogates my phone for the purchase information so that it can compute recent gas mileage. My hypothetical car uses NFC via my phone for keyless ignition, and I dock it for GPS navigation. In fact I might prefer that my car send an odometer record to my phone for every trip, so that I can track company mileage later. New cars may have several NFC antennas, on the dash and in or near the seats.
Arriving at the address of a business appointment, I place my phone momentarily on the receptionist's counter, and my calendar communicates with theirs, immediately identifying who I am for their guest badge printer, showing my picture on their screen for security, and downloading web-based directions for me to the meeting room. I smile and thank the busy receptionist, everything we each need was automatically prepared for us this time. Since I'm a little early, I click the "restroom" link in my directions, for a slight adjustment to my path through the hallways.
Another day, in an unfamiliar shopping mall, I wave my phone past a symbol on an information kiosk, and a searchable map is downloaded to my phone. As I walk thorough the mall, the map doesn't seem to be updating - perhaps my GPS is blocked - so I pass my phone next to a symbol at a store doorway, where a passive RFID tag identifies the store address, updating my map location. Malls could mount passive location tags at every doorway, kiosk, hallway, and intersection, and shoppers could navigate precisely even without GPS. At one point I happen to choose a restaurant to update my position, and I also receive a link if I want to click to see today's specials! A little later another mall kiosk catches my attention - a temporary display on loan from a local museum. A passive tag next to the display provides information on the curios, and links to the museum's web site. Another billboard catches my attention with a movie I might like to see later, and an active tag there supplies mall theater data to the movie ticket purchasing app already on my phone. I purchase two tickets. Reaching the store I initially wanted, a tag at their doorway downloads an internal map, which directs me to the department I was seeking. At checkout, the clerk scans my items, then I simply set my phone on the counter, enter my PIN on the store keypad, and both payment and my receipt are exchanged in seconds. Meeting my friend at the movie theater, we proceed directly to the ticket-taking usher. I wave my phone over his podium, and his display confirms my ticket purchase and tells him which hallway to direct us to. After the movie, my friend and I investigate that restaurant, and over the dessert special, we also wave our phones together, to participate in a feature of a new popular online game we both play - where bonuses shared in person via NFC are a little more valuable than those shared in other ways.
Why isn't NFC already popular in the US? The articles I have located mostly point to security concerns. Since the main "selling point" of the technology has been mobile commerce, almost every bit of NFC tech has been focused on payment systems. Maybe we're more security-aware in the US, maybe we actually have more "high tech bad guys" or maybe we're hedging our bets waiting for other countries to work the kinks out first. In any event, end users know that when it comes to payments, easier to use probably means easier to steal.
Already I have credit cards that do not require my signature for purchases under certain price thresholds. I'm not entirely happy about this, because I know that the card issuers are simply making me pay for a share of the fraud they call "too small" to fight. I want new technologies to make credit card frauds harder, not easier. I may want the card companies to be forced to clean up the fraud, instead of just sweeping it under their rug of merchant fees. But that illustrates that it's not really an NFC issue. If the purchaser doesn't have to supply any identifying data to confirm a purchase, thieves need only capture what's readable from the card, or phone, and that may be possible from just being next to the victim in a crowd. Even the combination of an ATM card with a secret PIN can be defeated by determined ATM thieves.
With NFC, we have an opportunity to increase user security, because the device is smart, and programmable. We can build systems which allow each user to make choices about how easy they want their purchasing to be. In my gas station scenario, I suggested a scheme with PIN options given to the user, so they could choose levels of security for their purchases, perhaps different levels at different merchants. The PIN procedures I have imagined probably have security holes I didn't spot, but I’m certain those can be identified and worked out. It is clear that the "wave and go" simplest scenario has essentially no security at all. Virtual pickpockets can queue up a transaction, then merely need to bump past you in a crowd, to get your phone's identity data and complete their theft. Someone good at working a crowd could probably achieve many small thefts per hour. It has been reported that there are already virtual pickpockets in some cities, scanning crowds for smart card data that can be captured just by proximity. I am convinced this will only increase, and rather than fight it effectively, the card processing companies would prefer to do as they always have - spread the losses across the customer base in the form of nearly-invisible fees (paid by merchants, who have no choice, and obviously passed on in the form of higher prices for everyone). With NFC, and the addition of smart devices which for the most part can use additional communications channels at the same time, we can add additional layers of security through things such as looking up web site security certificates over our phone's data link, to verify the identity and authenticity of any devices with which we make NFC connections.
Do we want the same payment conveniences the rest of the world is beginning to enjoy? Personally, I say no, but with just a few considerations to greater security, I probably could favor it. But I could get that payment convenience today with just a contactless payment card, which I can keep secure in a shielded wallet. I want the highly detailed digital receipts, but in theory, the payment card company could collect all the required data and email that to me. Though I'd still have to email it to my (theoretical) car for that mileage computation.
I believe I have illustrated that not everything about NFC needs to get bogged down in the security world of payments. There are many other useful exchanges of data which NFC can make possible. The tools are reaching developers now - it's up to us to think of even more uses. Geo-location, local information, maps and directions. Ticketing and check-ins. Game play. Paperless receipts - perhaps even with web links, security photos (of the items, and the person purchasing), and inventory information attached, communicated directly into the user's record keeping database of choice. And mobile commerce with enhanced security. By some fairly recent reports, Apple may have decided not to include NFC in the next revision of their iOS family (iPhone5, etc.). This could represent a major opportunity for Android. It could also be a misstep: if Apple's reservations are correct, and another technology can be brought to market quickly enough to displace NFC. But NFC is already making progress in other countries, so even if important issues remain to be worked out, NFC probably won't be disappearing right away.
== bio ==
I'm Bob O'Brien. I think about stuff all the time. I can't help it, it's just how my wires are connected. I examine things; I imagine how unbuilt things should function; I imagine what might go wrong, and I then think up ways to fix it. If there isn't enough information, I'm not afraid to guess. I'm willing to form an opinion, and I'm never afraid to change that opinion over new data. To be shown wrong is fine, because it means I just learned something. I love to learn.