Does NFC make some smartphones smarter than others?

by Natalie Lung | Photo credits: Natalie Lung | 9 February 2015

With the commencement of the new semester, University Street is buzzing with promotional booths for various groups and students handing out campaign leaflets. Among those booths was the AIESEC HKU counter, set up for members to register for a talk. Students would go up to the booth, fill in a form on the computer and swipe their student card on the back of an Android phone. After confirming that their name is correctly shown on the phone’s screen, they would leave the booth to continue on their day’s journey. The whole process would take less than a minute.

Hold on, so an Android device can scan your student card? Yup.

To speed up the process of attendance-taking and event enrolment, the AIESEC HKU Information Management (IM) team comprising Jonathan Ching, Chris Fan, Alpha Tam, Anson Wong, and Alan Wong built AIESEC HKU Tap-in, an Android app that utilizes the device’s built-in Near Field Communication (NFC) technology. By placing the student card in close proximity of the phone, a unique string of characters will be collected by the phone. Those characters are credentials that can uniquely identify each and every student, hence will be used to retrieve students’ names from AIESEC HKU’s existing records and then displayed in the app.

“With the previous system, we had to ask them for their UID and match it manually. It took 30 seconds for each person to register,” said Jonathan, the Vice President of the team. “But now with the NFC function, we can finish [the registration for] each applicant within 2 seconds.” Such technology reduces human input error as well.

Essentially, NFC uses radio waves to establish connections between devices without the need of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. In the above case, when the student card is placed near the Android phone, the phone will charge the NFC tag in the card, allowing it to emit a signal. The NFC-enabled phone will then receive the signal and read the string that is stored in the tag.

NFC is not new technology, but it is a fast-developing one. Apart from being embedded in our student cards, you can also find it in the Octopus Card. By going through the same process, except this time with an Octopus Card, you can check your remaining balance and transaction records on the Android Octopus Card app. The smart card operator has also taken it to the next level by introducing NFC-SIM in collaboration with Sony, turning your device into an Octopus card. Recent developments in mobile payment systems like Google Wallet and Apple Pay also involve NFC.

AIESEC HKU Tap-in in action.

Are some smartphones smarter than other smartphones? Not really.

No discussion in tech these days seems complete without an Android phone vs iPhone comparison. Android phones may seem more “capable” in incorporating NFC into their system. Indeed, Google led the discussion of putting NFC in smartphones with Google Wallet in 2011, in turn revolutionizing the way people made payments and dramatically raising the cost of losing one’s phone. Moreover, third-party Android developers could access the technology to create apps, just like what the IM team at AIESEC HKU and Octopus Card Limited did.

On the other hand, though Apple introduced the NFC-powered Apple Pay, they decided to restrict the NFC chip in the iPhone 6 to Apple Pay only, making it unavailable for iOS developers for the time being.

Before Apple Pay, the company has been testing the mobile payments waters with Passbook, a native app that keeps all your movie tickets, boarding passes, and e-coupons in one place. Hardware update, such as the addition of an NFC chip, was not needed on the iPhone as camera-scannable barcodes were used for identifying passes in the app.

The race between Android/Samsung and Apple to provide wireless, contactless, and ad hoc data sharing technology goes way back. Remember when Samsung came out with the pool party commercial for the Galaxy S4? They showcased “Android Beam”, an NFC-powered feature that would allow users with Android devices to transmit files to one another just by “high-fiving” the back of their phones. When a couple with iPhones got told their phones couldn’t do the same, the husband came to realization and said, “So some smartphones are smarter than other smartphones?”

It was “payback” time for Apple in the 2013 iOS 7 keynote. “AirDrop”, a data sharing technology which utilizes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, was introduced in iOS and as Apple puts it, users wouldn’t have to “wander around the room bumping your phone”.

Tech companies do not have to implement every emerging technology out there to prove themselves. They may already have their own solution that just works. Apple may not be keen on unlocking the chip for others to access, but by the power of the company’s marketing machine, NFC is once again in the spotlight for all to discover.

Natalie Lung

A final-year Journalism and Computer Science student at HKU. News and Internet junkie with deep appreciation for the performing arts. Favourite music genre: retro, house.

The opinion and views in this article are that of the authors and do not reflect the opinion or views of The HKU Journal of Technology, or the TecHKU Editorial Team. You can comment below to let the authors know what you think.
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Author: Natalie Lung

A final-year Journalism and Computer Science student at HKU. News and Internet junkie with deep appreciation for the performing arts. Favourite music genre: retro, house.

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