The Race Is On to Make NFC Wireless Credit Card Dreams Come True (and Win Market Share)

BMW NFC key

With manufacturers lining up to stuff wireless NFC (near field communications—a three letter acronym you're gonna have to get used to!) powers into seemingly every gadget, it's time to face facts: Your plastic credit card is doomed.

BMW's Connected Drive NFC car key

BMW is busy working on including NFC circuitry in its next-gen ConnectedDrive systems, on the premise that when you're away from your car shopping or whatnot you take your keys with you—and they already often have wireless functionality to unlock your car's central locking system. Plus, people often attach their home keys to a car key ring, and will thus have the BMW NFC fob handy even if they're not using the car.

BMW imagines you'll be able to open doors or gates (the way some workplace secure entry systems operate already), purchase a train ticket with your key fob—since it acts as a virtual credit card—and then use the fob to pass through the turnstile to the platform. BMW has even compiled an enticing video:

There're only two downsides to this plan that we can see immediately: While the NFC keyfob is definitely a smarter key, it lacks some of the super-smart abilities of a smartphone. That means losing your keys is going to be even more of a pain in the ass, as you may not be able to "remote wipe" your data from the fob. Plus smartphone NFC may be more attractive to retailers than a key NFC, because they can peddle ads, apps, and loyalty card schemes into an app, rather than the display-less BMW keys.

LG hops aboard the NFC bandwagon

LG has announced it's working on NFC from both ends of the problem—in smartphone handsets and in terms of the point-of-sale infrastructure needed to make the entire scheme work. It's busy testing an NFC ecosystem in Europe, and is planning a full-scale roll out in 2012.

The good news for LG is that it might've worked out that the best way to really make this work financially is to get its claws on the infrastructure, so rather than building its ecosystem around LG phones, (meaning consumers would be locked out of using an LG-crafted NFC interface unless they bought an LG phone), its likely that competitor phones would work too. LG's also planning on integrating the tech into TVs and business security systems.

Apple, Google, and Nokia

Google is building support for NFC interactions into its Android OS, and the Nexus S Google Android phone already has NFC circuitry inside. With Android rapidly accumulating smartphone marketshare, this is an important move.

Nokia has promised to build NFC technology into all the smartphones it makes from this year onwards, and since Nokia still retains the throne of the world's biggest phone vendor, this is a vital component in pushing the technology into the mainstream.

It's entirely speculative, but Apple may be building NFC support into its iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad for 2011. Rumors have been accumulating for months, but recent NFC-related job postings for Apple (one of the few ways we can gain insight into the plans of this secretive company) seem to support the notion. We've covered a lot of this news, and our argument is that if any one manufacturer can push advanced NFC interactivity (including credit cards, ATM transactions, computer logins and next-gen shopping) into the mainstream it's Apple. That's due to its market penetration, the Apple "cool" cachet, and the fact that it's already trusted by millions of iTunes subscribers with personal data and credit card details.

Existing NFC

NFC is already all around you, though you may not have noticed. Some hotels use NFC room keys (replacing the magnetic stripe ones, which replaced the punch plastic card ones, which replaced the physical key) as a means of convenience and security—since it can be tricky to "clone" an NFC key, versus a magnetic stripe one. The train ticket I used to commute to the office today is NFC—it's identical to most printed card train tickets except there's a thin loop of wire inside to act as an antenna, and if you squeeze it you can feel the grain-of-rice-like silicon chip in one corner. To get to the platform I merely had to pad my wallet up against a sensor, and when checking my ticket the guard was content to wave his scanning wand over my wallet without needing to see the physical ticket.

The future of NFC?

Who knows how far this tech may go? It could change shopping, many forms of credit card payments, PC logins, store loyalty systems and even stretch as far as advertising—how about a store display that changes to suit your tastes as it detects your NFC smartphone or keyfob when you walk through the door? Or a system that suggests shoes to match the dress you just bought at a nearby store?

The technology is certainly gaining steam and could easily become a mainstream phenomenon in the developed world by late 2012.

To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

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