We'd spotted Apple's interest in having near-field communications (NFC) in future iPhones, back in February. But two new patents from the company suggest it's really very interested in NFC for iPhone cash registers and in-home remote controls.
The earlier patent was an extension of how NFC works as you may have encountered it in your daily life—those short-range, radio frequency contactless subway tickets for example. But the new patents show that Apple's engineers haven't been content with mere simplistic implementations of the ultra-short-range tech.
The first new patent speaks to Apple's interest in converting the iPhone (or iPod Touch, for that matter) into a potent mobile computer that works as an electronic point of sale device. The idea is that a future iPhone would have both a near-field "transmit" circuit, like that inside your contactless train ticket) and a reader circuit. There could also be a built-in laser scanner for barcode identification, and the iPhone's camera could also be used to identify products (possibly using something like the 2D quickmark barcode system.)
All this added sensor equipment would be paired with a specialized on-board app capable of the complete EFTPOS (electronic funds transfer at point of sale) process from identifying a product, communicating with the store's inventory, processing the payment, identifying the purchasers positively, and closing the sale. At one point, Apple's design even suggests that purchaser ID verification could happen through a built-in fingerprint scanner. Essentially the iPhone would be able to replace pretty much everything a big bulky cash register can do...except print a sales bill—which could easily be handled by email (just like they do not at Apple stores). That's not all, though—Apple imagines being able to pay at a cash desk with an NFC iphone with a quick swipe, and even having a smart shopping basket with an NFC iPhone attached to do all the item logging for you.
The tech's all highly plausible, and Apple's got an incentive, of course: Such a petite point of sale device would be highly attractive to business buyers looking to change how they interact with customers making a purchase, meaning it could sell well. And companies like Square are already exploring this market space.
But Apple's got another NFC trick up its sleeve: It wants to build NFC interactivity into its desktop PCs too, so that they can interact with NFC-equipped iPhones. This allows for all sorts of rapid file sharing, and for remote control of sorts—the application shows a strange computer aided design implementation where the iPhone lets you remotely rotate the graphical image of an object, using NFC to detect the movements. And there's even a hint that NFC-enabling could let you control pretty much every electronic gizmo in your home (there's a picture of an XBox 360 in there for kicks.)
We're pretty sure that the new hardware for the iPhone that's due to be revealed later this year alongside the consumer release of the iPhone 4.0 OS won't have NFC powers designed-in. It's just too soon, for one—MFC has been around for ages and hasn't taken off in the way you think it might. But maybe Apple's multi-million selling hardware (and its attendant app ecosystem) is the perfect tool to finally get NFC into more common use. We may see it in iPhone 2011, then. And we haven't even considered how much more capable an NFC-equipped iPad could be...
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