Mobile apps have become a gold mine for developers, letting them make money from everything from productivity programs to bird-flinging games. Now the mobile industry wants help from developers to make smart phones even smarter.
Manufacturers are looking to boost a short-range communication system called near-field communications (NFC) in phones. This is similar to the radio frequency identification (RFID) systems often seen in transit systems such as San Francisco’s Clipper swipe card or London’s Oyster scheme. But whereas RFID systems transmit little more than an electronic bar code, NFC offers two-way communication and lets devices interact in more complex ways.
Some obvious uses for these systems—such as mobile digital payments—have been bubbling under for several years. Such technology is already commonplace in Japan. But in the U.S. and Europe, manufacturers have held back from including NFC chips in handsets until easy ways to use them arrive. Meanwhile, software makers have waited for the hardware to become available before spending money on development.
That may be about to change, however, with the arrival of Gingerbread, the latest version of Google’s Android mobile operating system. Gingerbread incorporates support for NFC, which not only makes it easy for manufacturers to build near-field chips into handsets, but also opens up the technology to a much wider pool of app developers.
The first Gingerbread apps supporting NFC technologies have already sprung up, even though there’s currently just one compatible handset, the Nexus S from Samsung.
One such app is Taglet, an information-sharing system that allows phones to pass details to each other with a swipe (imagine swapping numbers with somebody with a wave of your phone, or getting a city guide delivered to your phone simply by swiping it in front of a poster when you touch down at the airport).
Another early entrant is EnableTable, a restaurant coupon service developed by a company of the same name based in Greenwich, Connecticut. The company implants NFC chips inside restaurant menus and the folders handed to diners at the end of their meal. Users simply move their phones over the check to receive virtual coupons and offers that they can redeem later.
Kevin Gallagher, who started EnableTable two years ago with his wife, Sheila, says that NFC is still in its infancy, but those who get into the field early will have an advantage when the technology becomes more popular. “We saw in NFC a perfect storm of disruption, which is always a good sign and a good place for a startup company to be,” he says. “I think you’ll see [hardware makers] betting heavily on the next new thing and releasing NFC-enabled phones.”