For a quite obscured reason to me and perhaps because of some bad QR code experiences, many love to see NFC as the killer of QR code, if not its evolved successor. The fact that Google stopped its support for QR codes in Places and announcements made on Google wallet may have contributed to this general belief.
The story of NFC started early at 2002 and until these days it has not yet been really born. Few years from then were crowned with the title – “The year of NFC”. Some examples are 2008, then 2010 has been mentioned as a critical year for NFC. Then comes of course 2011 – again the year of NFC and finally 2012 as the year when NFC will break big.
NFC is big business; targeted to enable mobile payments and therefore motivated by the huge potential residing in futuristic mobile payments. As such it needs a whole ecosystem, from special devices to financial institution, operators, secured systems, service providers and more, everybody wants to be involved.
Truth is that mobile payments can be done with QR codes today. SCVNGRand other companies enable payments through QR codes with a click. So what are the differences between using NFC and QR codes? While it may be that QR codes do already what NFC will, is NFC really capable to outperform QR codes?
Predicted usage of NFC
To start off I looked at a list of predicted usage of NFC mentioned in Wikipedia.
File sharing – Tap one NFC device to another to share a contact, photo, song, app or any other content stored in device.
File sharing is available already with QR codes by displaying a QR code on a mobile screen. The Bump application already does this without any need for NFC.
Money transaction – To pay a friend, you could tap the devices and enter the amount of the payment.
This also is supported trough Bump technology. QR codes can do the same thing today – all you need in all cases is support from your bank app.
Mobile gaming – To enter a multiplayer game tap one NFC device to another. You will need of course to do more than this.
Games today can offer an invite friend option that will display a QR code on screen. The person scanning that code will join immediately the game – no need to wait for NFC for this.
Friend contacts – You could touch NFC devices together to Facebook friend each other or share a resume or to “check-in” at a location.
This also can be done today with both Bump technology and QR codes.
E-Commerce – NFC expands E-Commerce opportunities, by both increasing transaction speed and security. A Personal identification number (PIN) is usually only required for payments over a certain amount.
Mobile payment – An NFC device may make a payment like a credit card by touching a payment terminal at checkout or a vending machine when a PIN is entered.
QR codes are already used in vending machines for few years in Japan.
Ticketing -Tap an NFC device to purchase rail, metro, airline, movie, concert, or event tickets. A PIN is required.
Boarding pass- A NFC device may act as a boarding pass, reducing check-in delays and staffing requirements.
2D codes are already used for this exact purpose in Europe today.
Point of Sale – Tap a poster tag to see information, listen to an audio clip, watch a video, or see a movie trailer.
This happens to be the most widely way QR codes are used today, with QR codes you do not have to tap you can do this from distance.
Tour guide – Tap a passive NFC tag for information or an audio or video presentation at a museum, monument, or retail display.
QR code is better – like before…
ID card – An NFC enabled device can also act as an encrypted student, employee, or personal ID card or medical ID card. Same thing can be done with QR codes today.
Keycard – An NFC enabled device may serve as car, house, and office keys.
Rental Car and hotel keys- NFC rental car or hotel room keys may allow fast VIP check-in and reduce staffing requirements.
Evaluation criteria favoring QR codes
Price – NFC is a chip, a piece of hardware, its cost will be $1 and above per unit. QR code cost is the ink price it is printed with. On screens (TV, computers, street screens and mobile screens) his price is zero. Putting an NFC on any product will raise the product price – not so with QR codes.
Testing – In mass production a QR code should be tested once and then many copies will be printed. Print process is a well known mature art – no surprises here. On the other hand NFC is a chip. Duplicating chips is a more complicated process, in mass production each chip will have to be tested for readability. In case of NFC the already high original unit price will go even a little bit higher to cover these testing processes.
Availability – While almost every phone created in the last 5 years has a camera and a QR code reader that can be downloaded for free, the NFC solution requires a new handset. If every new handset today will include NFC it will still take at least 3 years until it can be said that NFC is widely used by public. Today very few phones support it, and every one of them has only a limited and partial NFC functionality.
Accessibility – QR codes can be scanned from a big distance (relating to QR code size). NFC on the other hand needs less than 10 centimeters and work best by touching the chip with your phone. So high posters will not contain NFC chips and contacting an item outside from inside your car will not be an option for NFC.
Vulnerability – QR code can sustain until 30% damage while any damage done to the NFC chip will disable it.
Density of codes/chips– For QR code aiming the camera to the correct code makes clear which code was decoded. With NFC chips one near the other there is no way to tell which of the chips is being read.
Richer media – QR codes can appear on TV, newspapers, printed paper, magazines, envelopes and daily products. NFC cannot use some of these media while using it on other (like magazines and daily products) will have a negative impact on price.
Metallic surfaces – No problem for QR codes while NFC may be affected.
Evaluation criteria favoring NFC
Bad lightening – Work under any lightning condition. QR code may perform bad at dark and may need flash for reading.
Curved surfaces – Work on curved surfaces while QR code cannot stand too much bending.
Eye contact – NFC do not need capturing an item into camera screen like QR code, meaning that less eye contact is needed when using NFC.
Both technologies need to open an app for making the reading.
The camera cannot be always open because of battery drain and the NFC chip cannot be always active for the same reason – battery drain and of course to avoid unexpected/unwanted reading.
Visibility – NFC senses your presence blindly – with the cost of being really close, while QR codes are all about visibility – their appearance is all their essence. Since sight is our main interface with reality some visualization will be needed to guide us to where the NFC chip is hidden. No space will be really saved by NFC chips on ads.
Where NFC really shines
Whenever you must pass in a specific location in order to pay a fix price NFC is a perfect choice. The subway environment for example is a perfect example where all you have to do for paying is put your phone on a special spot on the gate while passing through.
Passing boards are also a good example for using NFC although in many places 2D code readers are used in a similar manner when all the user has to do is to put a ticket with a code on a scanning device while passing a gate.
In ATM machines or money loading points for your mobile wallet, when fast identification is needed NFC is a good choice. Just put your phone on a spot and you will be both identified and charged – although you will still need to provide some additional info for final identification.
Since NFC chips sense other NFC chips only by proximity, it might be an excellent way to communicate between devices. For example your phone will automatically talk to your computer when they meet. Similarly your phone may be updated when close to any NFC fixed contact point connected to the Internet.
Looks like technology did not freeze all the many years we waited for NFC. Most of its usage is already available in cheaper and simpler ways. No doubt there will be specific scene where NFC will be faster and friendlier to use. On the other hand in many other situations it will be much less suitable than current alternatives.
We are still waiting to see when NFC will be fully operative and whether it will be a major market force as (even after all these years) still expected.