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What IT needs to know about near-field communications

Near-field communications is coming. Here are the pros and cons of deploying NFC in the enterprise.

By , Network World
January 28, 2013 06:05 AM ET

Network World - The rise of near-field communications (NFC) has been part of the discussion in the mobile industry for years. Unfortunately, the technology hasn't generated much more than discussion to this point.

So far, all who have predicted the ubiquity of the point-to-point communications technology have been wrong. Executives at major tech companies - Apple and eBay, for example - have scoffed at the idea of NFC as an everyday tool, and consumers in general still have no idea what it is.

Regardless, the technology provides ample opportunity for businesses, and is still expected to make a slow climb to relevance over the next few years. With separate factors helping to drive growth of the technology into new markets, it's time to consider how NFC can help in the enterprise.

What is it?

At its most basic, near-field communication is a set of standards that dictate how devices communicate with each other or with NFC "tags," which are essentially labels that can read and transmit information to and from an NFC-enabled device.

The aim of NFC standards is to establish a reliable, secure method by which devices can record and send information with minimal user input.

What can it be used for?

One of the most commonly discussed uses for NFC is mobile payment. Google Wallet, for example, stores a smartphone owner's credit card information and uses the NFC chip embedded in such popular Android smartphones as the Samsung Galaxy S3 to allow them to make payments in retail stores. Although this application for NFC has been put down by some in the industry, it is likely to become the most common use for the technology in the next few years. Gartner predicts NFC to begin gaining traction in 2016, when the firm expects the mobile payment market to reach $617 billion and 448 million users.

However, payments are hardly the only use for near-field communications.

Quick file sharing is one example, which was made more famous in the Samsung Galaxy S3 commercials that show two users touching their smartphones together to share files. This capability could be useful for those who travel often and need to quickly exchange data with co-workers or clients. But it will be limited to those who are within arm's reach. Otherwise, regular old email or collaboration apps still reign supreme.

NFC does provide plenty of interactive marketing opportunities. NFC tags can be placed on public advertisements or other marketing material users can scan to access additional information. The Museum of London, for example, offers NFC-focused mobile apps through which visitors can learn more information about exhibits and buy tickets for events.

Inventory has also been transformed by NFC. While RFID is better suited for managing bulk inventory due to NFC's limited distance range of just a few centimeters, NFC holds the potential to provide deeper information on inventory. One company, American Thermal Instruments, developed an Android app that allows users to gauge and monitor temperatures of items in shipment, such as pharmaceuticals. Scanning the temperature of one object in shipment would give the approximate temperature of all objects in the shipment, and can prevent shipping-related damage to bulk shipments.

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