Today Apple unveiled its much-anticipated iPhone 5—but NFC was not among the new features. While the new iPhone includes LTE, a 4 inch screen and a range of other incremental improvements, there will be no NFC in the iPhone for at least another year. We expect Apple’s latest NFC snub caught some by surprise, especially because several NFC-related patents granted to Apple during the past year suggested that the iPhone 5 would include the technology.
While the possibility remains some future iPhone iteration could integrate NFC, at this point, VDC does not foresee this happening unless material progress is made in the global NFC ecosystem—particularly in regards to the development of a robust contactless infrastructure in all regional markets, stronger enterprise investment in B2C apps and demonstrated consumer interest in using the technology. Time and again, Apple has deferred the integration of new technologies into its devices until they are fully proven, broadly accepted by the market and the company has developed a solution to support (if not monetize) them. At this point in time, NFC meets none of these criteria and, frankly, it is difficult to envision NFC progressing so significantly during the next 12 months that the iPhone 5s (or whatever the next generation device is called) would include NFC. It could happen, certainly, but we would not bet on it.
Furthermore, for at least the next year, Apple can legitimately be considered an NFC competitor. Via its new Passbook app, which is a key new iOS 6 feature, Apple is no longer on the contactless solution sidelines—it has adopted barcode in lieu of NFC. Passbook, which is essentially a mobile wallet of sorts, is capable of supporting certain contactless transactions, including ticketing (e.g., Delta Airlines) and payment at specific merchants (e.g., Starbucks). Just because Passbook is enabled by mobile barcode today does not mean future versions are precluded from NFC integration. However, in regions (such as the US) where the iPhone is especially dominant, NFC will remain challenged to become the preferred enabler of various mobile applications (e.g., payment, marketing, loyalty, etc.)
While the iPhone 5 announcement is certainly bad news for the prospects of the broader NFC market, there are still bright spots:
- Android is a larger and faster growing mobile OS: this is particularly true in EMEA and APAC where contactless infrastructure is more prevalent, and Android already supports NFC
- NFC has key differentiators that QR code, 2D barcode and the Cloud cannot match: These include speed/ease of use, stronger security, P2P capability and the ability to transmit information without a network connection
- New mobile OS options supporting NFC are in the pipeline: Windows Mobile, for example, will reach the market soon and could drive NFC adoption if it's well-received by consumers
From our perspective at VDC, the iPhone 5 introduction should send one very clear message to those suppliers and developers already engaged in the NFC ecosystem: stop pinning the hopes of your company and the broader market on the participation of Apple. Not only may it never integrate NFC into the iPhone or any of its other devices, Apple is now competing directly against NFC by virtue of the Passbook app. Now is the time to educate consumers and enterprises about what NFC is, what it can do, and why it’s better than competing solutions. Continue waiting 'til next year and by then it may very well be too late.