Gallagher could be onto something. Alongside Android, several other mobile companies are on the brink of launching handsets supporting NFC. Nokia has long invested in the area, and Research in Motion is reported to be working on NFC phones. Perhaps most importantly, there are rumors that some of Apple’s prototypes for the iPhone 5 incorporate NFC technology. Indeed, last summer Apple hired Benjamin Vignier, an expert in NFC, to run its mobile commerce products; the company has also applied for a number of patents related to near-field technology.
If enough new devices have NFC capabilities, then cell phones could be used for electronic ticketing, contactless payment, and identity sharing. But some say that inventive and entrepreneurial technologists could herald an avalanche of innovative ideas. “There has been a chicken and egg situation, but with Google’s announcement and the fact that the largest manufacturers will include NFC chipsets in their phones, it could change the game,” says Thomas Husson, a mobile analyst with Forrester Research.
Areas that are ripe for development include marketing, such as loyalty schemes, and games that involve new data sharing. “We will see this ecosystem around NFC apps emerge,” says Husson. “If developers have the tools to innovate—and it seems they will—it will drive things forward.”
Success is far from certain, however. Previous forays into near-field have been tentative, with a tiny number of handsets hitting the market over the years from the likes of Samsung, LG, and Motorola. Only Nokia has devoted significant amounts of time and money into researching NFC over the last few years, and its efforts have failed to make an impact. Networks have seemed equally reticent. In the U.K., the mobile operator O2 ran a trial where mobiles could be used for contactless credit-card payments and travel on the London Underground, but the scheme did not continue beyond the pilot.
Still, analysts remain bullish about the prospects for the technology: Juniper Research suggests that one in six wireless subscribers will have NFC-enabled handsets by 2014. And entrepreneurs like EnableTable’s Gallagher say that, even while the future of the technology is uncertain, developers can play a crucial role in pushing it forward. “Is it a gamble? Sure, any time you start a new business it’s a gamble,” he says. “But I honestly think it’s just a matter of time.”