An iPhone Packing NFC: More Than A Rumor?

Heard any good rumors lately?

Of course, in NFC circles, it’s hard to avoid the one going around about the next-generation iPhone supporting Near Field Communication.

I’d had my doubts. Apple’s first patent application for putting RFID in its touch screen was a couple of years old. And high-tech companies file patent applications they often don’t act upon.

When the first patent request came to light last summer and ramped up the rumor mill, I chalked it all up to a demoralized NFC ecosystem searching for a savior.

And who better to make people believe again in a mobile-contactless world beyond stickers than Steve Jobs? Jobs has been anointed a genius thrice over by the techno-gentsia: for shaking up the PC industry with the Mac, the music industry with the iPod and iTunes, and, of course, the mobile industry with the iPhone. If he were to bless NFC technology, people would build apps. And more importantly, other handset makers would conclude it was okay to add NFC to their phones, too, and mobile operators would order them.

Evidence had been thin that Apple wants NFC. But the evidence is building.

Another patent application from Apple surfaced in November, mentioning NFC by name. And leaks have sprung about the existence of iPhone prototypes with NFC that Apple has apparently built. There are also rumors of serious negotiations between Apple and Qualcomm about putting a Qualcomm chipset into the next-generation iPhone. Qualcomm is also incorporating NFC technology in some of its chipsets, part of its 4-million-euro investment in French NFC chip supplier Inside Contactless, announced in early 2009. Then there is the gossip that one of the Chinese plants that produces the iPhone was seen to be working with NFC.

Of course, all this would be idle speculation were it not for the sightings–yes, sightings, of Apple execs touring the card expo Cartes in Paris in November. One of the execs carried with him an NFC iPhone prototype—according to an eyewitness account.

In any case, all these reports beg for explanation. But, of course, Apple isn’t talking, as usual, and is enforcing a strict code of silence on vendors–as usual.  One NFC company rep told me Apple has insisted that internal memos about its work with Apple can’t even mention the company or the iPhone. These references must be code-named.

There is no doubt that Apple is considering a launch of NFC technology embedded in its next iPhone version. But as NFC Times reports, so is just about every other smartphone maker.

What makes it likely we’ll see an NFC-enabled iPhone next summer is not just the reports of patent applications and prototypes. It’s that NFC fits the Apple mold. After all, Apple’s real contribution to the world of consumer electronics is making its devices and services more user-friendly than the rest. That’s what NFC would bring to Apple, an even friendlier user interface.

But Apple’s patent applications indicate the Cupertino company is interested in NFC’s peer-to-peer and perhaps its reader mode only, not card emulation—that is, not to enable consumers to pay for coffee or underwear by tapping their iPhones at the point of sale.

With NFC, Apple could make it much easier for iPhone users to sync their phones to their Macs, iPods and game consoles—just by touching the phones to the devices. That could automatically open a WiFi or Bluetooth connection to transfer the data. Apple also likely wants to facilitate social networking, gaming and other apps by allowing consumers to tap their iPhones together. For example, they could touch phones to exchange iTunes tracks or personal information. The tap could speed the opening of a network connection or transmit small amounts of data directly over the contactless interface.

If it adopts NFC, Apple would likely be the first major handset maker to embrace the technology, although rival phone maker Nokia might dispute that statement, along with some of Apple’s NFC patent claims.

Nokia, which co-founded the NFC Forum trade group in 2004, notes that it has supported NFC more than any other phone maker. That is true, but to date the Finnish phone giant has put NFC only in a few pre-existing mid-tier models. It will also support NFC in the next version of its Symbian operating system, though apparently plans to supply Symbian phones with actual NFC chips onboard only in response to orders from operators.

Apple’s adoption of NFC would be different and a game-changer for NFC’s prospects, most industry observers agree. But despite the many sites devoted to chronicling Apple’s every hiccup and chewing on every strategic crumb, we may not know for sure whether the fourth-generation iPhone will pack an NFC chip and antenna until the phones get delivered next summer.

Dan Balaban is editor of NFC Times. 


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