7 Questions with NFC Expert Geoff MacGillivray


If you look back a few years, it is impressive to see the ways in which wireless technology has changed the way we live. One example of this is the emerging NFC technologies that are being built in to a range of BlackBerry® smartphones, and even the new 4G LTE™ BlackBerry® PlayBook™ tablet. NFC essentially allows devices to connect by waving or tapping them together. This is useful for exchanging small amounts of data like weblinks or contact information, and it is increasingly being used for mobile payments, where you can tap your device (which can be connected to your financial accounts) and conveniently pay for purchases. The future is now.

Since I’m no expert when it comes to NFC, I caught up with Geoff MacGillivray to get the scoop.

IBB BLOG: Could you tell us what NFC technology is for those who have never heard of it?

NFC is a very new technology for the mass market. It has been around for quite some time, and people have probably already seen examples of NFC or have used NFC technology even without realizing it. The acronym itself, NFC, stands for Near Field Communication. Essentially, it’s a short-range wireless technology that is largely associated with a ‘tap’ — a tap on a reader or another device to initiate a transaction.

Now, if you’re a member of a corporation and you have an ID pass or card that gives you access to the premises, it could be using NFC technology. If you tap the card to the reader, that’s an NFC exchange. Likewise, when you tap your credit card on a certain point of sale reader, your financial transaction is executed using NFC.

IBB BLOG: With today’s fast-paced lifestyle, what key uses of NFC do you think will help us the most?

I think the modes of NFC and the ways it can be used are so widely varied, and that’s where I see value for end consumers. It’s not just about payment, although that’s certainly one aspect of it.

Physical access is another aspect. It doesn’t just play into enterprise; it can also extend to other areas like getting access to buildings of any sort. Modern hotels rooms, for example – you won’t just get a magnetic key card for access, you’ll sometimes get a card with NFC technology that you can tap to be let in.

Transit is another use case – GO trains in Toronto use NFC with the Presto system, the London transport system uses NFC with the Oyster card, and a lot of transit authorities use it around the world because it just fits so nicely.

IBB BLOG: Is there a creative or interesting use of NFC that people may not know about?

We were just talking about what we call ‘card emulation use cases’ which are replacing the physical card in terms of NFC transactions.v

There’s also an equivalent form of NFC that fits within the QR code space. You often see a QR code on a poster, but it’s actually very easy to put an NFC chip on it instead. The benefit there is that you can simply ‘tap’ the poster to read a web link, phone number or other info instead of fumbling to focus your device on the QR code to read it.

Many of us already know about device exchanges that involve tapping devices together to share a picture or web link, et cetera. That can actually extend to accessory pairing as well. We’ve all gone to the trouble of trying to pair Bluetooth® accessories – wouldn’t it be nice just to ‘tap’ on accessories and you are Bluetooth-paired?

It’s these kinds of examples spanning a person’s daily life that will make NFC truly valuable. You don’t have to focus on a QR code – you just have to tap. You don’t have to pull out your wallet to pay – you just tap. So it’s all those little things that I think add up to the overall NFC experience.

IBB BLOG: With NFC, we’ve talked about the ability to exchange photos, documents and more. And in the near future, we’ll be able to make secure financial transactions. How secure are these transfers?

Another great question. People get a little worried when you talk about issuing credentials to a phone, but I’d like to point out that your phone is actually a more secure environment than your credit card. And the reason I say that is because there are remote management options as well as password lock and other features that are available.

When you have your credentials on your credit card and your credit card is stolen, they have your information if they know your PIN. If that info is now on your phone and stored in the same secure chip location where it’s stored on the card, you now have the ability to lock your phone. So if someone steals your phone they can’t get the card information without first unlocking the device. Plus, some devices also have remote wipe or management capabilities available.

The security of the device can now be factored into protecting your payment credentials or any other credentials that are stored there.

IBB BLOG: In your life, how do you feel NFC technology is most helpful, or engaging?

To me, the idea of getting rid of all cards is really appealing. Not just payment cards, but all the rewards cards and others too. Now if I can get down to a couple of cards in my wallet – at least in the short term – that would make me so much happier. In the long term, that could mean getting rid of your house keys and your car keys. All you would need is your phone. People could rid themselves of carrying wallets; they would just take their phone, because everyone takes their phone with them.

And the other thing about security is that I may not notice immediately if I lose my access card or even if I lose my wallet, but people are on their mobile devices so often that they’ll know if they’re missing them probably sooner than any other passes.

IBB BLOG: How large is an NFC chip?

An NFC chip is in the order of 1 millimeter or 2 millimeters square. What actually takes up space on the NFC tag is the antenna, but it’s still very flat. NFC stickers are paper-thin. There’s a magazine that recently ran an ad using NFC, so it can be imprinted in media.

There’s also a company investigating the ability to use technology to actually print an NFC tag. And if that happens, the cost will come down and the amount of functions you can explore will increase.

IBB BLOG: Over the next few years, what new capabilities do you think NFC technology will have? How do you think it will impact the smartphone industry as a whole?

I think we’re seeing a lot of publicity around the introduction of NFC technology in mobile phones now. And more and more companies and manufacturers are getting onboard with NFC. We have to bear in mind that this is a new technology and will be adopted over the next several years. The vision of having NFC as a part of your daily life is one that we should subscribe to. It’s going to take a little while to get there, but we’re pretty excited about how things are moving.

There you have it — NFC technology explained. Now that we’ve shed a little light on this new standard, let us know if you have any other questions, and be sure to check out Luke’s blog post on how NFC can be used in everyday life.

About Donny Halliwell

Donny is a Senior Product Marketing Manager at BlackBerry and Former Editor-in-Chief for the Inside BlackBerry blogs. There's no disputing, #TeamBlackBerry is awesome. I'm pumped to have the opportunity to talk with you and bring you the latest and greatest from Inside BlackBerry every day. In my spare time, I can be found helping entrepreneurs and startup companies grow their business. I spend the rest, obsessing over the auto industry, or enjoying music. Follow me on Twitter or Google+

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