MADISON, Wis. — Just as Apple released its iOS 11 on Tuesday, the NFC Forum rolled out on Wednesday its Near Field Communication (NFC) tag and reader certification program.

In adding the new program, the NFC Forum enables “tag/inlay, NFC reader, and handset manufacturers for the first time … to test and verify the performance and interoperability of all the key components in the NFC eco-system.”

iPhone 8
iPhone 8

While Apple’s iOS 11 brings big updates unique to its current iPhone and iPad, it also unlocks many new NFC-tag-based apps to be read by iOS-11-based mobile devices. This is a moment that the NFC community has long awaited.

Of course, Android phones have been doing this stuff for several years, but with little success. As Apple throws its weight into this field, many NFC chip vendors and industry observers are hopeful for the growth of NFC applications beyond payment.

For the first time, vendors of Android or iPhone devices are “putting an NFC reader in the hands of consumers,” stressed Alexander Rensink, co-chairman, NFC Forum, during an interview with EE Times. Rensink works at NXP Semiconductors as business segment manager for Smart Products.

Further, NFC advocates, including Apple, see IoT as the next stop for NFC tags and readers. NFC's ability to connect, commission, and control will be effective in solving some thorny issues of connected homes today, they say. NFC can help develop "a unified device commissioning flow independent of the underlying communication framework," the NFC Forum noted.

Global harmonization, for the first time
The NFC Forum Certification Program is also an important element of the story.

The NFC Forum is a non-profit industry association launched in 2004 by leading mobile communication companies, semiconductor, and consumer electronics vendors.

Certification will help ensure that NFC tags, readers, and handsets provide a consistent, compelling, and connected user experience.

More important, the NFC Forum has implemented the principle of “reader talks first.” The new certified spec covers both ISO 14443 (for proximity cards) and ISO15693 (for vicinity cards), making sure that the NFC reader can read both ISO standards. In short, the NFC community is making NFC for the first time “globally interoperable by harmonizing the different standards,” claimed Rensink.

NFC Forum Specs. Missing from the chart above is NFC Tag Type 5, which will support ISO 15693 standard. (Source: NFC Forum)
Click here for larger image
NFC Forum Specs. Missing from the chart above is NFC Tag Type 5, which will support ISO 15693 standard. (Source: NFC Forum)
Click here for larger image

ISO 14443 and ISO 15693 standards, while operating on the same 13.56-MHz frequency, offer different read ranges and data transfer speeds. To complicate the matter, each ISO standard has been implemented in versions with “multiple flavors.” NFC-enabled mass transit cards used in different countries — Japan’s Suica card or the U.K.’s Oyster cards, for example — couldn’t be read by the same NFC reader, Rensink explained. The NFC Forum Certification Program will effectively end these interoperability issues.

Testing conformance and performance
The goal of the certification program is to offer “conformance” and “performance” yardsticks to the NFC community. NFC, in reality, could come with a tiny lousy antenna or a chip that doesn’t perform well, said Rensink. By complying with a specified minimum level of “operating volume,” the makers of readers and tags can be sure that their products will work well in the NFC ecosystem.

Furthermore, the NFC Certification Program also offers a performance test. Depending on operating volume, the test establishes how far away a certain NFC tag can be read. The performance test is “optional,” said Rensink, but test results could give OEMs a comparative basis for qualification. OEMs seeking a second source, for example, will know which chips can perform in a similar range or even better than their first-choice chip, he explained.

According to the NFC Forum, the manufacturers and test labs who have already signaled support for the NFC Certification Program include Active & Intelligent Packaging Industry Association, Comprion, FIME, Infineon, NXP, Smartrac, and STMicroelectronics.

Going beyond payments
Phil Sealy, principal analyst at ABI Research, observed, “Commercial and large-scale use cases for NFC outside of payments have been somewhat lackluster to date, but this is partially due to the limited market opportunity, which previously could only target Android devices.” For NFC tags’ slow market momentum thus far, he blamed Apple’s previous decision “to lock down its NFC capabilities.” He said, “Service providers and brands are unwilling to invest in a technology that can only reach a limited number of users operating NFC-enabled Android devices.” But with the release of iOS 11, he believes that this could change.

When we talked in late July to Marie-France Florentin, STMicroelectronics’ microcontroller, memory, and secure MCU group vice president, she told us that ST sees “in NFC a world of opportunities.”

NFC tag applications listed by the ABI Research analyst Seal include social connectivity, targeted marketing, loyalty, smart posters, anti-counterfeiting, and brand protection. He predicts that NFC could become “the next-generation platform” for brands to connect with consumers outside the traditional retail environment.

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