Nokia's Lumia assault continues, as it desperately tries to make itself relevant. That's something it's having to spend a lot of money to do, even as its U.S. effort is just starting. And now it's bringing NFC along for the ride.
In a slightly bumbling sequence of moves this morning, Nokia's new NFC-enabled Lumia 610 phone was first leaked, then officially outed by Nokia. Nokia calls it the "most affordable" edition of its new Windows Phones, and that will surely help it win a bigger marketshare among smartphones—especially if the phone can outperform against cheap, almost-generic Android units, and even address the pre-pay phone market that's huge in many places outside the U.S. But the 610's not a one-trick pony, and in addition to its price point it also has another new attractor: wireless payment and tag-reading technology.
Nokia explains that the hardware is built directly into the phone—this is its eighth smartphone to use the system, so Nokia's pretty good at this now—but that the software support had to be built directly on top of the core Windows Phone 7 code the phone runs. This may be because of Microsoft's will it?/won't it? approach to supporting NFC in the current OS. But it likely won't be a problem when Windows Phone 8 arrives because MS has said it's definitely supporting it in the new system (and, very probably, working closely with Nokia to ensure it all works seamlessly).
We write a lot about NFC, as it may become a ubiquitous tech soon enough and potentially a transformative one for mobile tech users. But NFC is still a rarity, so what can you do with the Lumia's new powers? Quite a lot, actually, as it's been certified by both MasterCard and Visa as compatible with their rival wave-and-pay protocols. It's also going to work with "ticketing solutions," which likely means transportation systems such as Hong Kong's Octupus, the U.K.'s Oystercard solution, Portugal's transit system, and the fledgling efforts at NFC ticketing in New York (assuming the NFC-enabled 610 is available in other places apart from its launch Orange network).
Nokia notes it can pair with accessories and interact with touch-tags instantly, making pairing with devices like Nokia's own Bluetooth BH310 headset much less fiddly. And, as the video shows, there's all sorts of other uses you easily imagine, like checking in with Foursquare at a single tap, following an entity on Twitter, and even "liking" something on Facebook.
But what this phone really is, Nokia's not ashamed to say, is a way to make both Windows Phone and NFC accessible to a "younger, broader audience." And therein lies a neat trick. We know that kids love tech that makes it easier for them to live their digital lives, and a recent survey suggested that one third of U.S. high school kids uses an iPhone—just a single type of smartphone, so we can assume a huge chunk of the remaining 70% uses an Android phone (as they're typically a bit cheaper) or some other smartphone. If Nokia's pricing, and MS's "dynamic" Windows 7 UI—which can deliver info about IMs, SMSs, tweets, and Facebook updates right on its home page—appeals to kids, then Nokia could have a big seller on its hands.
There's a single stumbling block here, but it's a biggie: The phone's usefulness as an NFC unit is directly proportional to NFC adoption, among payment processing systems in stores, with venues using NFC tags to promote events, or even NFC-enabled advertising (a speedier, perhaps less clunky replacement for the current mini-craze for QR codes). There is an undeniable momentum behind the NFC payment intiative, and the public will slowly get used to the idea—meaning stores and other customer-facing services will wake up to NFC too—if efforts like Nokia's become more popular.
And here's where Google enters the story. There's a bit of a fuss about Google's $12 billion acquisition of Motorola right now, given that the phone maker is a shadow of its former glorious self, has a dwindling market share, and that the purchase itself will pitch Google against its current Android partners. But what if Google's planning on using Motorola's extensive manufacturing powers to make NFC much more popular, thereby validating and expanding its early "experimental" efforts with Google Wallet? It wouldn't seem beyond the pale, and the components needed to add NFC to smartphones really are cheap (perhaps even cheap enough for Google to include it in its rumored-to-be-upcoming own brand tablet PC too).
It's speculative that Google will do this, but perfectly plausible. And Google may be sensitive to the pressure it's feeling from a resurgent Apple and the promise of Windows Phone devices, thus choosing to differentiate its products with a feature that really can add value.
Whatever Google does, we now know Nokia's trying NFC out in a big way as part of its smartphone comeback effort. And that means by hook or by crook, smartphone-NFC is creeping into the public sphere.