With all the cautious excitement among NFC professionals and enthusiasts about the iPhone 6, it’s inclusion of NFC is becoming the most common question that I’m asked these days. The iPhone and NFC, the unavoidable elephant in the room. One thing is certain though, if NFC is not included, physical space on the back of the phone will become as valuable as icon space on a user’s main screen. IPhone users often affix their NFC cards to the phone and use them by holding it to a reader. This is common for contactless cards used daily, such as transit passes, but sometimes payment cards as well. Since most readers can only read a single card at a time, iPhone users will only be able to affix one card since the presence of a second will confuse the reader. So if Apple abstains from NFC again, users will have to choose which card gets the prime parking spot! Leaving all others relegated to the wallet or the nightstand drawer. Of course, Apple adopting NFC would avoid this since the iPhone will be able to emulate as many cards as needed.
I firmly believe that Apple’s patent filings are not a signal that NFC is on its road map for the iPhone, but there is a strong possibility that NFC is an escape plan if Apple cannot force iBeacon onto point of sale (POS) manufacturers. Apple can not afford to miss the bus on mobile payments, pun intended. Even with all its might, Apple is unlikely to strongarm POS manufacturers and payment processing companies into adding iBeacon capability to their terminals, however NFC is already included in the latest models and quite common in some EMV countries. Here in Canada, NFC terminals have been adopted by the biggest merchants as well as family owned operations, while NFC credit cards have been the norm here for a years. Clearly NFC has a head start in the POS terminal market over iBeacon.
However, even if Apple finally realizes that NFC is the only technology that will allow its users to pay with their iPhones, the iPhone 6 won’t “have NFC” per se. What I mean by this is that Apple will include NFC as a physical layer only, enough to talk to a POS terminal and pay with an iTunes account. But a full NFC stack in the iOS SDK is unlikely at this early stage. The Android NFC team spent a long time implementing a full NFC stack with a proper SDK and documentation yet few compelling NFC apps have been developed since. Apple users are not asking to scan a smart poster, create their own tags or ‘beam’ content to another phone, they are asking for a way to pay with an iPhone.
Presumably then, Apple will use an internal secure element to perform contactless transactions through card emulation mode. Access to the secure element and card emulation mode would of course be limited to trusted applications, initially developed by Apple or closely related partners. So temper your expectations and don’t expect a way for developers to access any NFC capability since, as mentioned, iPhone users aren’t asking for that as much as simply a way to pay with the phone.