In the Case of the Missing iPhone, No Word on NFC

While Apple has retrieved the prototype of its fourth-generation iPhone that a careless engineer apparently left on a bar stool in the Silicon Valley hamlet of Redwood City last month, there are no reports yet of how the company is going to prevent similar screwups.

Might Apple in the future require employees working on iPhone prototypes to tap the handsets on RFID touch points positioned at strategic spots in their homes and in restaurants and bars popular with the Cupertino crowd? For example, the employees could be made to tap every 15 minutes or 20 minutes during waking hours–just to make sure they still have the phones in their possession. If not tapped for, say, two straight hours, the devices could self-destruct, though not in a way that creates a fire hazard.

Okay, kidding aside, it wouldn’t surprise me if super-secretive Apple resorted to some even more draconian measures than usual to prevent more features of the next iPhone from leaking out before its public unveiling, expected around late June. But don’t expect to see the RFID touch points in public places. That would definitely give away that the next version of Apple’s popular smartphone supports NFC, to wit, by reading RFID tags.

Despite taking the prototype apart, the editors at tech-news site Gizmodo did not mention finding any NFC chip or antenna in the “borrowed” iPhone, which they procured for $5,000 from the person who stumbled upon the phone in the Redwood City, California, bar. Debates continue about whether it was all a publicity stunt staged by Apple. And some still doubt the authenticity of the phone, though Apple did officially ask for it back Monday, (and later the home of the tech editor that reported on the phone was raided by police, probably at Apple's urging) which indicates it probably isn’t a fake.

But Gizmodo’s editors didn’t seem to do a very thorough dissection of the iPhone’s innards before publishing their analysis Monday. They noted finding a larger battery and smaller SIM, or micro-SIM as they called it, along with other internal components labeled “Apple.” But they didn’t even note the identity of the main processor chip or any specifics on features. Of course, Apple had already killed the phone’s software remotely, so Gizmodo couldn’t see the phone in action.

The article on their findings mainly focused on design changes indicated for the next iPhone version, such as a flat shiny plastic back, squared edges and a chat video camera in front. A small NFC chip and antenna could have easily escaped Gizmodo’s notice, especially if it wasn’t looking for the components.

NFC industry observers are keenly watching the launch of the next iPhone for what they hope will be a game-changing event for the industry. Adoption by Apple of NFC would not only increase visibility of the technology considerably, it would open up the app store to lots of new NFC services and, perhaps most importantly, encourage other handset makers to embrace NFC.

Observers point to a flurry of patent applications filed by Apple and published earlier this month. The patent requests give NFC a prominent role in synching of content and other types of sharing among Apple devices, as well as detailed proposals for using NFC for event and transit ticketing and peer-to-peer and retail payment.

And as NFC Times was the first to report, Apple apparently sees a business model in NFC that goes beyond selling more phones. At least one patent application on payment suggests Apple could charge fees to enable retailers and product manufactures to send advertising, coupons and other data to the iPhones when consumers are at the point of sale. Apple also could ask for money from banks in exchange for making their payment applications the default payment options on their customers' devices.

NFC Times has also learned that Apple has ordered or bought test tools for NFC. And, of course, there are the inevitable rumors of NFC chip orders by Apple.

But despite this and the apparent early peek at the fourth-generation iPhone prototype by Gizmodo, we probably won’t know for sure what’s really inside the device until Apple unveils it within a few months.

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