What’s in a Title? Lots of NFC Phones, Though the iPhone Remains to be Seen

After years of hype and false starts, it appears NFC phones will finally arrive in significant variety and quantity next year. And nothing says that better than a new job title at NXP Semiconductors, "NFC volume ramp-up program manager."

That’s the title for Jérôme Collignon, a smart card and NFC industry veteran at the Netherlands-based supplier of NFC and other chips, according to his updated LinkedIn profile.

And it appears the title is not just wishful thinking on the part of NXP. As NFC Times recently reported, NXP and competitors, including Inside Contactless, predict up to 50 million phones will be on the market by the end of next year. These predictions are based on orders or commitment for orders. Such operators as France Telecom-Orange France, its sister branch in the United Kingdom, South Korea’s two major telcos–and most importantly, the big U.S. mobile carriers–are among the operators that have all put money on the table to buy phones or plan to do so soon.

And the joint venture formed by the U.S. telcos, Verizon, AT&T, along with T-Mobile USA, have made it clear to handset makers they want NFC-enabled smartphones. I’m hearing they are especially partial to Android phones, which could be used for mobile payment and other NFC-based Android apps.

The venture, while seemingly moving forward in fits and starts, is nonetheless making progress. I’m told the telcos have finally hired a CEO to head the group. The new chief, a veteran of the payments industry, should be announced soon. UPDATE: The venture reportedly will name former GE Money chief marketing officer Michael Abbott to the post. END UPDATE.

The carriers also recently hired a trusted service manager, France-based Gemalto, to handle secure application management for pilots planned for the second half of next year. U.S.-based C-Sam is said to be working on mobile-wallet software for the group.

Among smartphone makers with NFC phones in the pipeline are LG Electronics, HTC and Samsung, all of which are expected to have Android models by the second half of 2011, sources said. In addition, Research in Motion will have one or more BlackBerrys, I’m told. And, of course, Nokia has already confirmed publicly it will begin shipping Symbian-based NFC phones next year. It already has released the high-end C7 smartphone with NFC hardware inside, though needing software upgrades to unlock the NFC functionality. The Nokia devices and at least some of the Android phones are expected to carry chips from NXP.

UPDATE: Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt on Monday disclosed plans for Android’s next version, 2.3, known as Gingerbread, to support NFC. Schmidt, speaking at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, talked about Android phones being used for NFC-based payment. END UPDATE.

Despite all of the recent blog blabber about the iPhone 5 supporting NFC for remote computing–among other applications–we don’t know yet whether Apple will take the plunge with NFC. There aren’t yet the winks and nods from people in the know that say Apple is definitely going for NFC.

By people in the know, I don’t mean the Apple blogger corps, who as usual are repeating thinly sourced rumors or relying on raw speculation for their latest NFC "revelations." The most recent example came earlier this month, with reports that the iPhone 5 will store passwords, settings and other data that–with a tap of the phone–could turn any other NFC-enabled Apple computer into a near carbon copy of the user’s home Mac. The recruited Macs could be in public places.

Few of the bloggers, however, stopped to think how rarely someone would need to commandeer an unfamiliar Apple computer to run their apps.

Another Apple blogger a few days ago said he uncovered a new patent application from Cupertino that confirmed the iPhone remote-computer claims. The patent, "Mirrored File System," professes to enable future Apple devices to "quickly and seamlessly transfer work and personal files" from one device to another, with the iPhone serving as the lead device.

But all this sounds strikingly familiar to Apple patent applications that came to light last spring, one of which cast the iPhone in the role of the hub in device-sharing networks to exchange files and settings. Others showed that Apple is interested in synching of devices to share files, such as music and videos.

And the rumors late last month that Apple is working with smart card company Gemalto on an embedded SIM that could enable subscribers to buy their iPhones directly from Apple and, therefore, cut out mobile operators also seems unlikely–at least the part involving Gemalto. With SIM sales accounting for almost half of the vendor’s nearly €2 billion (US$2.75 billion) in revenue, I doubt Gemalto would risk alienating its prime mobile operator customers, even for a high-profile deal with Apple.

These rumors, and the continued speculation that Apple will get into the retail-payments market, gain currency because they fit Apple’s style–that is, to try to control the entire ecosystem and offer cross-support for its various devices to encourage consumers to buy more of them.

Now, it is likely that when Apple does introduce its first NFC-enabled iPhone, there will be an embedded chip controlled by Apple to store keys that could help the company keep track of downloads of secure apps and to earn revenue from them. Apple could, in effect, become a trusted service manager.

But it’s still too early to say whether the iPhone 5 will support NFC. Other NFC smartphones, as well as feature phones, will definitely be hitting the market next year, however.

And that should give NXP’s new NFC volume ramp-up manager something to do.

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