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NFC Marks Multiply as Doubts Persist over NFC Forum Touchpoint Icon

By: 
Dan Balaban

Even as the NFC Forum attempts to broaden the reach of its NFC touchpoint symbol, known as the N-Mark, rival marks are surfacing, threatening to present consumers with a fragmented array of NFC icons as the technology rolls out.

Such large organizations as the GSM Association, Google and Microsoft are backing their own marks, while many other consumer brands, from clothing store chains to snack food purveyors, are expected to promote their own marks, as well. And so are some major smartphone makers.

Add NFC marks for national and local rollouts, such as Cityzi in France, and the NFC Forum’s goal of establishing a consumer-facing, globally recognized, mark on smart posters, devices and software is appearing increasingly difficult to achieve.

“I don't see anyone apart from vendors at trade shows or startups looking to be ‘NFC Forum’ compliant using the N-logo for touchpoints,” said Neil Garner, CEO of UK-based NFC application and platform provider Proxama, which designed its own mark for NFC smart poster campaigns. “Operators and payment schemes have their own ideas about the touch brand. Handset manufacturers use their own branding, too, and many handsets do not have any icon to indicate where on the phone hardware the NFC sweet spot is.”

The NFC Forum, the industry’s largest standards and trade group, announced the N-Mark–a stylized “N” with wavelike outer arms and unconnected middle–in 2009, following years of study and trademark registration procedures. All told, the mark has cost the forum nearly $1 million to bring to market, mainly for trademark legal fees, a source told NFC Times. The forum disputes that figure.

But the symbol has never generated much enthusiasm in the industry, with many NFC service providers and application developers viewing the mark as too focused on NFC technology itself, and not on how the technology can be used.

The forum has made establishing the N-Mark as “the global symbol of NFC functionality” one of its top goals and recently announced it had relaxed its rules for allowing manufacturers to display the mark on their devices and for software providers to put it in their products for the first time. The N-Mark was previously available only on tags and other media without certification.

In announcing the changes, the forum said its mark was showing “strong momentum,” and that dozens of companies have stated a commitment to using it, including sponsor members NEC Corp., NXP Semiconductors and Sony Corp., including its Sony Mobile subsidiary. Principal members CSR and Research In Motion, maker of BlackBerrys, also expressed support.

Device Makers Demur
But it remains unclear when and where these companies will be displaying the mark.

Such handset makers as Nokia, Samsung and Research In Motion, which together have introduced the vast majority of the NFC models to date, haven’t included any mark on the back of their phones to indicate where users should tap.

That could create problems for consumers, since the NFC antenna is located in the back of the phones, but in different places depending on the manufacturer. Nokia has put its NFC antenna near the top of its NFC-enabled Symbian phones, Samsung and Acer in the middle and Research In Motion in the middle or bottom of NFC BlackBerrys.

Some, such as Miller Abel, an NFC Forum board member for several years representing Microsoft before he recently left the software maker, believe users will figure out where the NFC sweet spot is on their smartphones without a mark. They will need a mark for tablets and larger devices, he added.

The problem for the N-Mark is that it doesn't serve its purpose well in telling users where to tap, Abel contends. 

“It makes a decent brand mark but a lousy touch mark,” he told NFC Times, noting that he was speaking for himself, not Microsoft. "I was joined in that opinion in the NFC Forum by other sponsor members a few years ago, when we were developing the market strategy and agreement. I guided caution in adopting the N-mark as a touch mark without supporting evidence that it improved discoverability.” 

The N-Mark, however, was not a big topic of debate among forum board members, including those representing device and chip makers, when it was approved five to six years ago, said sources. 

In the years since, NFC phone makers haven’t used the N-Mark, either on their devices or in accessories or consumer-facing promotions.

Nokia, a co-founder of the forum in 2004 and a board member, is still evaluating whether to use the N-Mark in any capacity, according to Kristiina Ilkka, NFC product marketing manager for the phone maker.

She told NFC Times she doesn’t think the mark conveys to consumers what NFC technology can do.

“It’s so technical,” she said. “There are so many different ways of using it (NFC)–pairing, sharing. Do you really recognize with that mark that that is what you can do?”

Nokia, however, has used the lowercase letters “nfc” on a circular blue field in some of its marketing materials to consumers, which it apparently believes consumers would recognize more than the N-Mark.

The forum singled out Research In Motion and Sony Mobile among device makers as being committed to using the N-Mark with their products and services. But they, too, appear unlikely to put the icon on their devices or tags.

Geoffrey MacGillivray, RIM’s manager of services security, payments and NFC, who like Nokia’s Ilkka, said he supports the work of the forum to standardize the technology, said RIM is not committing to putting the N-Mark on the exterior of its devices.

“Our devices don’t carry markings on the outside denoting radios,” he told NFC Times.

RIM so far has only agreed to put a tiny N-Mark icon on the screen of its NFC-enabled BlackBerrys to indicate the NFC interface is active, as it does with other radios, such as Bluetooth and WiFi. RIM hasn't distributed its own tags.

“It’s really early in NFC rollouts,” MacGillivray added. “Our preference is that the industry starts to align itself to a common set of guidelines around NFC, and NFC forum is one of the bodies to help with that.”

Sony Mobile, part of NFC co-creator and NFC Forum board member Sony Corp. is also not committing to a major use of the N-Mark, at least not yet.

It is promoting its own brand, Xperia, on NFC tags that it is shipping with NFC-enabled Xperia smartphones. As for devices or any other use of the N-Mark, the Japan-based handset maker would only say that when it is ready, it would “announce the date and the details accordingly.”

Forum: N-Mark Has ‘Strong Momentum’
The forum told NFC Times the N-Mark is coming on devices and noted it only recently relaxed its rules to permit device makers to sport the N-Mark without first gaining certification from the forum that their device meet forum specifications.

Representatives of the trade group say they have been responding all along to requests for a globally interoperable NFC mark by members, which now number 160 companies and include just about all major NFC chip, phone, software providers and payment networks.

Moreover, more than 1,000 companies worldwide have signed the free N-Mark trademark licensing agreement and downloaded the N-Mark. More than 60% of those downloads have come since the beginning of 2011. The licensees, many signing the N-Mark agreements recently, include a major European automobile manufacturer, large U.S. airline and several major device manufacturers and some large telcos, said the forum.

“One hundred and sixty companies and 1,000 downloads tell you; that’s a pretty good indication that people believe (that) when it’s appropriate, and when a universal mark is needed, that’s the one they are going to use,” forum director Debbie Arnold told NFC Times.

The device makers include Japan-based electronics company NEC, a forum board member, which plans to put the N-Mark on ”personal devices,” according to the forum. The company wouldn't elaborate, but among its products are laptops and mobile phones. In addition, Arnold said a major consumer electronics maker has decided to display the N-Mark on all of its devices, though she said she couldn't yet reveal the name of the company or whether the devices would include smartphones.

The N-Mark actually stands for global interoperability of NFC technology, and this is important to consumers, said NFC Forum chairman Koichi Tagawa, speaking April 13 at a session on the N-Mark and other marks at the WIMA 2012 conference in Monaco.

“The N-Mark is really showing the touchpoint and the technology in it being compliant to NFC Forum specifications and (NFC) capabilities,” he said. “These devices have to be able to be used in as many uses cases as possible, so developers will continue to develop applications and device makers will continue to make devices that will be able to operate on these wide variety of applications.”

Telcos Launch Their Own Mark
But the GSM Association, the large trade group representing most mobile operators worldwide, recently introduced its own NFC mark, called the NFC Icon. Like the NFC Forum with the N-Mark, the GSMA hopes to make the NFC Icon a “universal symbol” for the technology.

It hopes that operators will use the symbol–which depicts the outline of a smart phone making a waving motion–for their SIM-based NFC services, including on their NFC SIM cards.

And it wants its member telcos to encourage service providers to put the mark on certain payment and ticketing terminals and on smart posters, where users could receive information and download content. It also wants device makers to put the mark on their phones, or at least on the packaging.

A GSMA spokeswoman contends the NFC Icon is not in competition with the N-Mark, however.

“The GSMA NFC Icon is a service mark and represents the availability of mobile NFC services, via the SIM,” she told NFC Times. “The NFC Forum N-Mark is a technology mark as opposed to a service mark. It’s not intended that one or the other will dominate, but rather that they will all continue to exist in their relevant space.”

The NFC Forum, in fact, is pitching the N-Mark as both a service mark and a technology symbol. And most of the GSMA’s proposed uses for its NFC Icon are identical to those targeted by the forum.

The GSMA plans to license the icon only to operators, which in turn would sublicense it to service providers and device makers. It made the mark available to telcos about three months ago, but it remains to be seen how many operators will adopt it. 

The additional mark and the fact the GSMA mark focuses mainly on SIM-based services threatens to add to fragmentation as NFC marks proliferate, say some industry observers.

Many of the NFC phones hitting the market will carry embedded secure elements that can run NFC applications, they note. One example is Google Wallet.

The GSMA is not planning to promote its mark for these services, however, only for similar services running on NFC SIMs.

The GSMA and its member mobile operators are keen to promote SIM-based NFC services to ensure the telcos don’t get cut out of the revenue when NFC rolls out.

NFC Times has learned that among the phone makers responding favorably to at least putting the NFC Icon on packaging are RIM and Nokia. Both are struggling manufacturers in need of patronage from mobile operators.

Although the GSMA is a member of the NFC Forum in the nonprofits category, it’s unlikely that the GSMA and NFC Forum would coordinate the rollouts of their respective marks.

The relationship between mobile operators with the forum has never been close–with only a handful of telcos having joined the forum since 2004 and only one, Japan's NTT DoCoMo, on the board. Two others, U.S.-based AT&T and, more recently, Rogers of Canada, are principal members. That is out of a total 32 board and principal members, the two highest levels of membership that entitle the companies to vote and sit on decision-making committees.

The small representation among operators in the forum has much to do with the telcos’ SIM-centric view of NFC, which the NFC Forum doesn’t share.

Also, telcos believe the forum would not address their issues and is controlled by chip makers and, to a lesser extent, phone makers. Big telco groups and NFC backers France Telecom-Orange and Vodafone earlier had been members but dropped out, possibly over disagreements with forum standards.

Microsoft Weighs In
Microsoft, a former NFC Forum board member which helped choose the N-Mark, has nonetheless passed on using the mark for devices running its next PC operating system, Windows 8.

Microsoft has instead introduced its own mark for NFC on Windows 8 devices, including tablets.

Microsoft recently downgraded its membership in the forum from sponsor member, which had entitled it to a seat on the board, to associate member, a nonvoting position.

Microsoft had had a seat on the forum's board from the beginning, starting in early 2005, and has supported the forum's efforts to set global specifications for NFC. So it's not clear why it reduced its membership to one of the forum's lowest levels. It's also unclear whether Microsoft originally voted for the N-Mark while on the board.

The software giant released its NFC implementation specification in late February, which features its “Tap and Do” mark. According to Microsoft’s specification releases, device makers will be required to put the mark on their certified Windows 8 devices that carry NFC chips.

Microsoft sees the Tap and Do mark running on tablets and other PCs to show users where to tap to pair the devices with peripherals and share or download content and apps with other NFC devices and from smart posters.

It is requiring the NFC chip and antenna and, therefore, the mark to go in the back corner of tablets. Laptop makers would have to put the mark on the keyboard either next to or on the touchpad. Desktops would probably sport the mark on top of the tower.

Microsoft hasn’t stated any NFC mark requirements for its next smartphone operating system version, Windows Phone 8, and it is much less able to dictate such requirements to the smartphone market. But the company has indicated Windows Phone will have many elements in common with its PC platform.

The black-and-white design of the Touch and Do mark–two arrows revolving around and pointing to a central dot–is intended by Microsoft to be “distinct and easily recognizable.”

The company is apparently trying to emulate the success of simple icons on device screens or devices themselves denoting Bluetooth, WiFi and USB technologies. But in the case of Tap and Do, Microsoft not only wants the NFC symbol to mark where the NFC antenna is, but also to conjure an image in the user’s mind of the NFC “gesture.”

Abel, formerly principal program manager for NFC and mobile payment standards architect for Microsoft and now a consultant, said that in his personal opinion, the industry “needs to be clear with consumers about the gesture, and what to expect when tapping.”

“Perhaps the touch mark will resolve itself once the pain of fragmentation becomes more real in applications that require cross-vendor interoperability,” he said.

N-Mark Design Issues
The lack of a strong suggestion for how NFC technology is used is one of the main criticisms of the N-Mark design. Or as Bob Whelan, co-founder of U.S.-based NFCLabels, which sells tags and tag management applications, put it, the N-Mark doesn’t have a “verb” in it.

“You want to get some kind of action, tapping, touching, beaming,” he said.

In one of the highest-profile NFC tag campaigns launched to date, U.S.-based Wired magazine sent out 500,000 copies of its April 2012 print edition to subscribers running an NFC-enabled ad for the new Lexus GS. Tapping a tag attached to the ad page brought NFC phone users to a mobile site where they could view information about the luxury model’s dashboard apps and navigation system.

But the touchpoint icon in the ad was of the Contactless Symbol from payments standards group EMVCo, ironically intended for point-of-sale terminals.

Michael Manley, a consultant on the project, said organizers chose the EMVCo symbol for the NFC labels attached to the ad because they felt it would be more intuitive for consumers than the N-Mark.

“Universal branding of a technology has worked well for accelerating consumer adoption,” he told NFC Times. “Consider WiFi–everyone recognizes the WiFi icon on their computer but how many recognize the Wi-Fi Alliance logo? With the simple thumb and tap logo with four circular bars (EMVCo mark) to conduct a transaction–it's intuitive.”

He added, speaking of the N-Mark: “Seems we have organizational interests and consumers’ interest at odds here.”  

Million Dollar Mark
The forum began work on its touchpoint mark about a year after the group was founded in 2004. After arriving at a pair of finalist designs, the group hired Nielsen research to conduct consumer surveys on the candidate marks. The N-Mark emerged as the clear favorite among the respondents.

A forum spokeswoman, while not discussing details of the mark selection, noted that prior to choosing the N-Mark design, the forum conducted “thorough research, including extensive online surveys of target users in a number of countries in North America, Europe and Asia.” 

The forum's board members believed at the time they were choosing the mark–about five to six years ago–that they wouldn't have any problem getting the symbol adopted everywhere, NFC Times has learned. They considered it similar to the Bluetooth symbol, rolled out by device makers and other industry suppliers.

All told, the market research and trademarking process cost the forum nearly $1 million over the years, according to a forum source. The majority was for legal fees to get the mark trademarked in various countries, the source said.

“They invested in it; they really thought in the early days it was a no-brainer, pick a mark and everyone would use it,” said the source. “It made sense many years ago. The ecosystem hadn’t splintered.”

And early on, the forum thought NFC would roll out much faster than it has. But perhaps the splintering of the ecosystem was inevitable, since NFC has a much broader range of potential uses than Bluetooth–not only device pairing and sharing of data, but payment, ticketing, access control and various tag applications.

In addition, having spent so much on the research and trademarking process gives forum board members one more reason to stick with the N-Mark.

Still, there is a growing perception among some in the industry that NFC members, including some board members, do not support the mark since they do not yet use it. Microsoft’s decision to design its own NFC symbol rather than use the N-Mark has not helped to dispel that perception.

“If it’s something forum members don’t adopt, it really doesn’t have any likelihood of success,” said NFC Labels' Whelan, who was a member of the Wi-Fi Alliance when the trade group adopted its WiFi logo. He argues that consumers recognize this logo, despite its many variations. “If WiFi vendors didn’t adopt WiFi as a term or logo it wouldn’t have been successful.”

The NFC Forum's Arnold, however, rejects the notion that members or other NFC vendors or service providers don’t support the N-Mark. The 1,000-plus downloads of the N-Mark licensing agreement tell a different story. And forum board members agreed the organization should continue to push the mark as the global consumer-facing symbol for NFC technology.

“We’re reacting to what the market has asked us for,” Arnold said. “We’ve been through a lot of this and to come to the point that everyone agreed that this is the way to go. That’s quite an achievement. It was not pushed down their throats.”

The forum acknowledges that the N-Mark will have to share space with other marks or brands on touchpoints, she said. And it's still early on in the adoption process, she noted. But without a universally recognized symbol like the N-Mark, consumers will not know where they can tap their phones or other devices.

“If you’re down at the mall and walking past 20 smart posters and a couple of smart billboards, you’ve got to know your phone works with this.”

‘Brands Rule the World’
Yet, the forum faces perhaps its biggest challenge in convincing big consumer brands to use the N-Mark when they roll out their NFC campaigns.

Google, for example, is using its own brands for its Google Wallet and its tags embedded in merchant decals for its Google Places ratings and recommendations service.

Big NFC tag producers, such as Smartrac and Identive, told NFC Times they are seeing demand by consumer products companies to use their own brands on tags.

Under emerging tag business models, these brands would pay every time the tag is tapped, which would allow them to collect valuable data on prospective customers.

They would pay the distributor of the tags, be it a merchant with in-store smart posters, a smartphone maker including branded tags in the device boxes or a publisher of an NFC-enabled magazine ad or circular. And the consumer brands would be unlikely to want to share the consumer-facing part of the tag with the N-Mark, say some of the tag makers.

“It’s going to be brand-driven; I think the brands rule the world,” said Matthew Smith, vice president for product and technology management mobility and NFC solutions for U.S.-based Identive. “The brands will be the ones promoting the smart objects or interactive objects, whether it’s (on) clothes in an H&M store or it’s football star (memorabilia) in soccer stadiums.”

This is an issue facing the numerous small companies springing up offering NFC marketing “services” to merchants or consumer products companies. The services usually involve NFC tags in some type of smart poster enabling consumers to tap to download content or check-in on social networking sites. The startups might license the N-Mark and use it in their B2B promotions to win customers, but often these customers want to use their own brands on the tags for consumers.

“One common logo is good for general reasons,” said Lukas Kypus, founder of Czech Republic-based NFCengine. “(The) most problematic area is if the existing service already has its own logo or icon, like social networks, for example.”

The expected insistence of brands to use their own tag designs, plus competition from regional touchpoint symbols, does not bode well for the N-Mark taking hold among consumers, said Identive's Smith, speaking at the recent WIMA conference in Monaco.

Neither does the fact that the N-Mark bears a striking resemblance to the logo of Nespresso, a popular brand of pre-apportioned coffee capsules and boutiques based in Switzerland, he said.

“Unfortunately, the N-Mark is almost past its time,” said Smith. “My belief is that when NFC really happens, and it will happen, I have to believe that, I think tags and payment services will just become obvious to people. I think in some ways we are underestimating our target market.”

He added that the one argument for the N-Mark or other global NFC mark is to help consumers make the mental link between the NFC technology in their devices and the tag they are asked to tap.

Without some way to make touchpoints recognizable to consumers, the users might not know what they are supposed to do with it, said Glenn Needham, head of UK-based Near Field Solutions and formerly chairman of the forum's security working group.

He created a logo for Fujifilm group photo kiosks in the UK, enabling users to tap for instant Bluetooth pairing with the kiosks to print photos stored on their NFC phones. The touchpoint design combines the N-Mark with a unique mark for the NFC-enabled kiosks.

“The point is, brands and images need to work together. Anybody who tries to encourage or enforce a single mark will always fail because major brands will always resist,” Needham said.

He added that consumers don't care what technology they are using for services triggered by the touchpoint. “All we’re effectively creating with NFC and other technologies, we’re creating interactive objects, whether that interaction is paying for something, whether it’s to get a map, whether it’s playing a game,” he said. “What is absolutely critical, when they are faced with one of these objects, they know what to do with it.” NT

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