NFC is a Crutch

I have very little to say about the iPhone 5 announcement that has not already been said by a dozen other people. But I do have a strong opinion about the lack of NFC.

I’ll skip the rumor mongering that lead to the NFC speculations and get straight to it. I’m glad Apple is not using NFC in the new iPhone. My iPhone already has one of the best data transmission options available, a retina display and a high resolution camera.

NFC is solving the wrong problem. Here’s the real problem: how do we communicate data a short distance as quick as possible with the least effort?

The human eye has already solved that problem. The camera has too.

While I’m not a fan of QR codes as a data encoding design, I do like the new iOS6 Passbook approach. Much like QR codes, NFC is too passive and it obscures the data within the transmission.1 I want to see what I’m giving to a cashier when I pay with my phone. I don’t want to wonder if I’m giving them my address, phone number and pant size when I buy coffee. I want to know what they are getting. I want to see what they see and an image serves that purpose. Passbook is my ideal for a phone based payment system and the rest of the technology for using it just needs to start solving the right problems.

I’d rather see innovation in image processing and recognition than things like NFC and QR codes.2 With improvements in OCR, a camera could interpret text and images from an iPhone screen directly. Facial recognition could be used as identification without needing pin systems. A QR code can only store 3K of data. An NFC chip can store around 512K of data. That’s miniscule, yet it only takes about 1200 pixels to determine the age, sex and identity of person from a photo.3 There are 614,000 pixels on an iPhone 4S display. Let’s use them intelligently.

  1. I appreciate that data can be hidden in images and decoded, thus obscuring the transmission as well. I would consider that a purposeful violation of my trust and I would be against that as well. ↩︎

  2. There are still really good uses for technologies like RFID. The use of RFID for rapid inventory tracking would be difficult through image recognition. This is obvious to anyone that has stood in a grocery store line while a checker repeatedly tries to scan the same item 10 times. ↩︎

  3. A nice discussion can be found in this PDF. While it is not in a peer reviewed journal, I’m comfortable with the conclusion. ↩︎