RFID on the next iPhone? Why?

An RFID-equipped iPhone could open doors – literally – and advance the technology.

RFID on the iPhone? A shopper walks past an oversized iPhone 3GS at an Apple store in London Nov. 2.

Reports are coming in that Apple (in addition to rolling out a smaller capacity Droid-fighter) has plans to build RFID capabilities into its next iPhone. Why would Steve Jobs and the folks in Cupertino do that?

Most people think of RFID (not always viewed as the most secure of systems) as the cards and scanners used for corporate building access. But recent advances in "near-field communication" (NFC) have broadened the spectrum of RFID's uses.

Think of NFC as enhanced RFID. With RFID, there is a distinct card and reader, and the card can be read when it comes into proximity with the reader. NFC does the same thing, but combines the card and reader functions, enabling two-way communication.

What does Apple want with NFC?

Einar Rosenberg, who runs the Near Field Communications LinkedIn group, shared this:

A highly reliable source has informed me that Apple has built some prototypes of the next gen iPhone with an RFID reader built in and they have seen it in action. So its not full NFC but its a start for real service discovery and I'm told that the reaction was very positive that we can expect this in the next gen iPhone.

So we could soon be ditching those RFID cards and using our iPhones to open doors, ride the subway, or rent Zipcars. Big whoop, right? Well, yes, but there's more.

Bill Ray, writing for the Register, points out that Nokia owns many of the patents surrounding NFC technology, and has been pushing it without success for some time. It's a chicken and egg problem: Without a network of applications, there's no reason for device makers to (pay to) adopt the tech. And without a range of uses, there's no reason for users to demand that device makers include it.

An Apple adoption of the tech, with its army of App Store-loving users, could give NFC a real kickstart, bringing innovation to the field.

What might that mean? How 'bout an app from Boston's MBTA that not only displays location-aware maps, but lets riders do away with cards and payments? Or one that, along the lines of the barcode scanning apps out now, could read embedded RFID tags on products and instantly display a place to buy them for cheaper.

More mundanely, NFC could smooth Bluetooth pairings – instead of the tedious search, wait, pair, wait, authorize dance that must currently happen, two NFC-equipped devices could sense each others' presence, display an approval screen, and be done with it.

The truth is, many of NFC's possible uses haven't been conceived of yet – and won't be, until they get a little help from a big endorser like Apple.

Below, check out a video of an RFID card reader attached to an iPhone. It gives an idea of how the device could interact with tags in the wild. And be sure to follow us on Twitter for the latest in tech – we're @CSMHorizonsBlog.


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