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The iPhone 5 plays catch-up with Android smartphones

Galen Gruman | Sept. 13, 2012
4G LTE and big screens are old hat in Android, but new to the iPhone 5. NFC is still MIA in the iPhone. Where does Android's hardware edge matter most?

The iPhone 4 did introduce the very high-resolution Retina display that Android competitors have yet to emulate. Retina is sharper and clearer, but not dramatically so compared to a quality "regular" smartphone screen. It's nice to have, but doesn't make or break a purchase.

NFC: Near-field communication has been a blogosphere darling for more than a year, but it's very limited in its utility, plus it's a battery hog. As a zero-configuration short-range network chip, it should allow for swipe-style transactions such as for payments, ticket scanning, and bus passes. But the infrastructure for such services is minuscule. More common are the use of QR codes on screen, such as for airline boarding passes, and Internet-based transactions, such as Square payments at Starbucks. Apple's new Passbook ticket-managing app in iOS 6 could provide the incentive for that missing infrastructure -- assuming an Android-compatible service quickly followed that could use the same infrastructure. On the other hand, Passbook doesn't need NFC to work.

So, given all these issues, it's no surprise that Apple hasn't adopted NFC in the iPhone 5.

As for the use of NFC for personal information exchange, that would be lovely. I rarely have business cards any more, nor really any place to keep them. All my contacts are in my address book or email archives, and there's no easy way to add business cards. (No, I'm not going to type them in.) I've been at lots of meetings where I've wanted to bump our smartphones to exchange cards, but there's no simple core service to do so across devices.

Also, NFC-based information-sharing needs to be OS-agnostic to take off. So far, every mobile OS that has implemented NFC for such sharing -- WebOS, BlackBerry, and Android -- has limited its use to its own OS. Thus, usage approaches zero.

But there are some uses of NFC beyond mobile payments and information sharing, such as device authentication, that Apple could do on its own. The trick is that anything Apple does on its own can't try to subsume or bypass an established ecosystem. For example, iOS 6's PassBook service is a great enhancement to online ticketing, but doesn't require airlines and others to not use other technologies on other platforms. Contrast that to Research in Motion's announcement yesterday that it has a new capabilty for some of its BlackBerrys that let them use NFC as identity badges for buildng access using HID Global's card readers. Currently, only BlackBerrys are compatible, which means adoption will be nil -- how many companies require all employees to have BlackBerrys any more? HID Global does plan to support other mobile platforms in the future, at which point the use of NFC-enabled smartphones as ID badges could make sense.


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