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The technology inside smart cards and highway toll-taking systems is now making its way into cell phones. And, within a year or two, it could be changing how many of us get information and do business.

Near-field communications (NFC) combines two established technologies: radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which are tiny chips with built-in radios, and wireless readers that pick up signals from the radios. Similar technology is used in electronic highway toll systems, such as Fast Lane Pass, in retail stores and their suppliers, and in U.S. passports. And it’s now being introduced into mobile phones, given their ubiquity and ability to have more features crammed inside them.

Near-field technology uses RFID tags with a range of about four centimeters, meaning a person would need to hold a cell phone quite close to a reader, in much the same way that barcode scanners work. RFID tags with certain specifications can also communicate directly with each other, so that two NFC phones could talk to each other.

In April, the regional transport authority for Frankfurt, Germany, Rhein-Main-Verkehrsverbund, said it had successfully completed a 10-month trial of NFC technology in which commuters could use their cell phones as mass-transit passes or to buy tickets directly.

The trial used Nokia 3220 cell phones that have NFC technology built in, and involved support from Nokia, Philips, and Vodafone. The Frankfurt transportation system said it would now adopt the technology, which will also be used by 14 local retailers as a form of payment.

Although this is the first commercial application for the technology in cell phones, the NFC Forum, an industry group made up of a broad range of vendors, including Philips, Sony, and Nokia, says that more than 60 trials of NFC technology are underway throughout the world. And last week the forum announced several new technical specifications for improving data exchange among cell phones from different vendors, and for making it easier to build new NFC applications for cell phones.

With NFC technology, phones could become like mobile wallets, yet with the added ability to swap addresses and share photos. People could also use the technology to download movie trailers from a movie poster, or to get detailed product information in the midst of shopping.

Cell phones that use Bluetooth or WiFi will find it even simpler to connect using NFC, says Erik Michielsen, director of RFID and ubiquitous networks at ABI Research in Oyster Bay, NY.

The introduction of specification standards means that the basic NFC technology is in place for use in cell phones, says Gerhard Romen, head of global market development at Nokia and chair of the NFC Forum’s Marketing Committee. “From the perspective of an overall technology architecture, everything is there now,” he says. Once an industry group agrees on technical standards, it usually takes from three to five years for the participants to develop versions that work well in the market, Romen says. The forum was created in March 2004. While only Nokia and Samsung currently have NFC phones on the market, a number of new ones should be introduced in 2007.

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