LONDON Near field communications (NFC) is getting nearer – but at a pace that has disappointed even some of its most fervent backers.
At the third annual Global NFC Developers Summit, held in Monaco late last month, the mood was distinctly upbeat, the exhibition area busy and the talk full of optimistic noises about more upcoming trials and important steps to start interoperability testing of novel devices and services using the low power, short range communications technology.
However, this was as it was at last year’s WIMA-organized summit when, by common consent, the feeling was that the following 12 months would see commercial deployments on the back of significant progress in standardization efforts.
The state of the global economy only partially explains why such roll outs may be postponed for a further year and, more likely, longer. For it is still the lack of eye-catching devices and realistic business models in both the transportation and mobile payments sectors that is holding things back. Determining how everyone in the chain can make money from the technology remains the obstacle. And recent scares about the security of the technology have not helped.
One major fillip for the prospects of faster endorsement by the financial and transportation sectors was Nokia’s announcement at the event that it is readying a handset that embeds the secure element and payment system inside the SIM card, taking advantage of the Single Wire Protocol standard – see NFC phone sends all the right messages.
Nokia’s move breaks a protracted stand-off between mobile service operators and handset makers over who should control the mobile device with regards to NFC payments.
"We are seeing some delays, no doubt, but I am also aware of some significant deployments under consideration," Christophe Duverne, senior vice president at NXP’s identification business unit told EE Times ahead of his keynote at the event.
"One thing in the past that has clearly held things up was the lack of commercial grade handsets that put identification information within the SIM. Operators have been pushing hard on this for quite a while, and we can now see visibility that they will act once they see sufficient handsets in the market with this capability," said Duverne.
NXP is by some way the largest supplier of silicon for NFC applications, with companies such as STMicroelectronics, Inside Contactless, Infineon Technologies and startups such as Denmark-based Polaric also participating.
Duverne said early predictions for penetration rates may have been over optimistic, "but we are seeing huge opportunities" now that standardization efforts have firmed up and debates about such issues as single host, multihost interfaces settled. He told EE Times the technology licensing program for NXP’s MiFare chips and card platform IP is to be extended.
To date Renesas and Infineon have publicly disclosed they are licensing the technology, as well as NXP’s joint venture Moversa with Sony. "But we are pushing hard to get others on-board and create an open industry-wide specification. Watch this space, other deals are in the pipeline," said Duverne.
Duverne also said that the next-generation MiFare Plus devices, with increased security, "will be available by the end of this year."
One significant theme at the conference was that, while mobile is clearly the main driver of NFC technology, it is by no means the only one. This was also demonstrated in the 20 projects that were demonstrated and judged in a competition for the best commercial application and research project, organized by the NFC Forum – see Competition winners highlight NFC’s breadth.
The point was made by Chris Feige, senior director and general manager of NFC at NXP. "Over the past year, we have actually shipped more devices to the PC and consumer electronics sectors than for mobile phones. "
According to Feige, NFC integration into the PC market is already set to increase the contactless reader market from about 3 million units in 2009 to an estimated 20 million units by 2012. There are also moves to integrate NFC into games consoles, TVs and there are numerous projects for the automotive sector – including a SmartKey development with BMW – as well as opportunities in the health sector. The reason is clear; such ‘closed’ systems do not need the kind of complex infrastructure, and can ramp up faster, then the areas getting the most attention – public transportation, ticketing and mobile payments.
Nonetheless, it will be these complex ‘ecosystems’ and big, often troublesome projects that will drive NFC technology, and for that, a secure, simple-to-use handset is a minimum requirement and the more variety and choice the better.
Which is where the NFC Forum comes in, said Ian Keen, the organization’s technical committee vice chairman and NFC applications manager at Innovision Research and Technology Ltd. "We have made great strides in standards-setting – 11 have now been released, which offers critical mass for implementers and for meaningful trials and we are continuing to work on many other important ones – but the focus now needs to shift to ensure interoperability and conformance testing. We are working with key players such as ETSI and equipment suppliers, and have a clear plan for 'Plugfests' to ensure all this works together."
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