Exchange and Outlook Blog

NFC and the Internet of Things

Two months ago, I don't think I'd heard of near field communications (NFC). And now, it seems to be coming up in daily conversation. Granted, my daily conversations tend to be with people in and around the technology world, specifically in messaging and mobile communications; your daily conversations might vary. But this often seems to be the way with tech terms: They burst on the scene, make a big splash, and before you know it you can't remember when they weren't part of the landscape.

There's a lot going on with NFC, and a lot of companies betting big on this technology. In case you, like me, have had your head in the sand with regard to NFC, let's take a quick look at what it is, and what it might mean for mobile device support and your Microsoft Exchange Server organizations.

At a basic level, NFC is a wireless communication technology that requires a very short range, typically 4 centimeters or less. One side of the NFC conversation is the initiator, which generates a radio frequency (RF) field that can power the target device, and thereby provide for exchange of data. NFC is mostly being talked about as a technology for mobile phones—so far—and there are a few basic functions it can perform. First, NFC could be used in a smartphone to read information from "smart posters" where information is encoded or embedded by way of RFID tags. Second, NFC can be used for peer-to-peer (P2P) communication, such as exchanging contact information between two smartphones.

The application of NFC most talked about, however, is the commerce aspect: using NFC to replace traditional plastic credit cards for payment. Instead of swiping your credit card, you'll tap your phone. This implementation is the basis of Google's big announcement last week of Google Wallet. The forthcoming Android app will let you store all your credit card numbers and loyalty cards, and then use the phone's NFC capability to pay at participating retailers (providing you have the right phone—very limited at first—and that you can find a participating retailer).

Currently, NFC capability is available on very few handsets. However, RIM recently announced plans to include NFC in the BlackBerry Bold 9900, and rumors swirl around whether the Apple iPhone 5 will include this technology—rumors that will remain just that until Apple officially announces the darn thing. Various analysts and news outlets have been reporting projected huge growth in NFC-capable phones in the next few years, and in addition to the typical handset makers and carriers that drive this market, they've also partnered with financial institutions such as Visa and MasterCard because they need support on the payment side to make the technology worthwhile on the phones themselves.

Back in early May, I spoke with Adam Blum, CEO of Rhomobile, about that company's latest release of its Rhodes cross-platform mobile development framework. One of the touted features of Rhodes 3.0 is support for NFC, allowing developers to easily include this technology in their mobile apps. In speaking with Blum, perhaps what impressed me the most was his ability to see the benefits of NFC beyond the simple commerce and payments equation that is dominating the dialogue. Blum talked about the possibilities of using NFC in line of business applications—for instance, for stock-taking—which led to another new tech term (for me): the Internet of Things.

The basic idea behind the Internet of Things is that virtually every object would in some fashion be tagged, whether through RFID or some other method, and you could therefore easily pull up information about anything you're in close proximity with. Although I think this is a fascinating concept, I also think it's a bit on the science fiction side at this point (not to mention somewhat Orwellian). We haven't come close to working out all the details and infrastructure for NFC as a payment method yet—so getting all objects tagged is clearly a fantasy.

But you could foresee implementing such a system within your organization. You're already putting asset tags on computer hardware, so it's not a stretch to conceive of a system that would rely on NFC to track who something is signed out to, if there's a service call on something, and so forth. Perhaps that would have to be called the Intranet of Things. Or how about going into a bookstore (assuming such creatures still exist), tapping a book with your phone, and getting a video trailer. No more cumbersome reading of those dust jackets! (Although if you actually feel that way, you're probably not reading books anyway.)

I hope that developers find interesting and useful ways of implementing this technology and that it doesn't just get relegated to the payment stream. It seems that there are entertainment and educational—as well as business productivity—uses to be discovered. Of course you know the advertisers will find their ways of manipulating the technology (and I suppose my bookstore example is a kind of advertising); let's just hope they won't be too obnoxious. I concur with ZDNet's James Kendrick ( @jkendrick), who recently tweeted: "NFC doesn't excite me. I'm pretty sure it will end up being using primarily to send me unwanted ads based on location."

As more and more mobile devices become NFC-capable, it will be important for Exchange admins to note that Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) currently has no policies to control to use of NFC on mobile devices, as it does for other common communications protocols, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Although I couldn't get any information about this out of Microsoft, I have to believe that they'll be looking at this for possible inclusion with the next version of Exchange Server and EAS.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
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