By which I mean a guide written by an idiot of course.
Like just about everything to do with mobile phones except texting, I had heard of NFC but never thought about using it. I don’t even use Bluetooth on my phone. Last year, however, I had a couple of different wireless speakers to play with. One of them (made by Creative) had NFC as a feature so I felt duty-bound to try it out.
In this instance, what NFC means is that instead of going into your phone or tablet settings, turning on Bluetooth, then choosing the speaker and pairing with it, you just touch the phone or tablet to the speaker and all that happens automatically. I was impressed. One of the things that puts me off Bluetooth is all the fiddling around pairing and unpairing.
The other speakers I was playing with (made by Pure) were better in many ways, and I use them all the time via my wifi network, but they were lacking that NFC feature. Not a huge problem as the wifi connection does everything I normally want. I said as much in an online review and couple of weeks ago a company called Whiztags got in touch with me. They said they had a product that I could use to give the Pure speakers the same NFC functionality. They were about to launch it in the UK and would I like a set to test out? [*]
I always like a chance to play with new toys so I said yes, and pretty soon I had a bag of NFC tags to test out.
What NFC is and what it does
In simple terms – i.e. in terms that I understand – NFC (which stands for Near Field Communication) is a wireless protocol that is built into many mobile phones and tablets. From here on any time I say mobile phone, just assume that it includes tablets as well. It has a very short range – hence the ‘near’ – and requires no power. I believe that it draws whatever power it needs to transmit from the mobile phone.
The technology is very similar to that used in Oyster cards, some contactless payment systems and the type of security pass that you touch to a panel to open a door. For all I know it could actually be the technology used in those types of cards.
Another way of looking at it is that it is a bit like QR codes, the difference being that you just tap a phone on it instead of taking a picture. You might say that QR is better because you don’t have to get right up close, although I guess NFC has the advantage of working in the dark. If, like me, you have a tablet without a camera then NFC is miles better than QR codes.
OK, so that is a very basic description of NFC, so what is an NFC tag? It is a something, often a small plastic disk, that holds an NFC transmitter. You can buy them and program them yourself to do all sorts of things.
In my case I programmed one disk to turn on Bluetooth and pair with my Pure speaker if I tap my tablet on it. If I tap it again it unpairs and turns Bluetooth off. A fairly simple task. I programmed another one to hold the URL of a web page that has all my contact details like FAcbook, Twitter and Flickr on it. Tab a phone or tablet to it and it takes you to that website.
The programming turned out to be very easy. There are several apps available in the Google Play Store which are all free and can all be used to program tags, re-write them, erase them, read what is on them, lock them to prevent re-writing and erasing and some other more obscure things. I tried a few apps and they were all easy to use.
It was strange to use something where the capacity is measured in bytes. We now have MicroSD cards with many gigabytes of storage on themso when faced with a device that only has 137 bytes you kind of wonder what you can do with them. If you want to use a tag to give people all your contact details you probably can’t fit them into 137 bytes. What you can do is store the URL of a webpage with all your contact details and 137 bytes is enough for that.
If you are programming a tag to automate tasks for yourself then there is a lot more scope. You use an app that can program a series of tasks a bit like a macro, then you just store on the tag the instruction to run that macro. It won’t work for other people because they won’t have that macro on their phone. So you could, for example, have a set of instructions to dim the screen display, mute the ringtones, turn on an alarm and disable messages then when you go to bed just tap the phone on a tag which does ll that for you.
So were the Whiztags I got given any good? How do they compare to other makes? It is hard to say because I haven’t tried any other brands. From what I can make out, they will all work the same way so it is a bit like buying blank CD-Rs. There are only two main ways to differentiate between different brands: build quality and customer service.
In terms of build quality, the Whizztags seemed very robust with a laminated front that certainly appears to be weatherproof. Peel off the back and there is a 3M adhesive that is very, very strong. You don’t have to use them as stickers but can just leave the back on. In many cases that is what I would do because once they are stuck somewhere they are not coming off!
In terms of customer service, I found the person I was dealing with to be very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. They are a small company who are a bit evangelical about the concept, and at the moment it is the only thing they do so they are keen to help. There are other companies that make similar products and some of the mobile phone companies make them but call them something different. I don’t think you would get the same level of quick help talking to, say, Samsung’s customer service because they have to cover all aspects of the phone and might take them a while to realise you just want to know something simple about their own-brand NFC tags. Having said that, their website is a bit slow at time. They could probably do with a faster connection to it, especially if they grow their customer base.
Some of the other smaller specialist companies (like RapidNFC) would probably be as responsive as Whiztags.
So what is the point?
So I have a small bag of NFC tags now. What can I do with them? In my particular case, not a lot.
Unfortunately my mobile is one of the few current models that doesn’t have NFC capability, so I can’t program tasks for that, and just about every use I can think of applies to mobiles rather than tablets.
I think the technology is really one big solution looking for a problem. It may be that it takes off in the future as people get more comfortable and familiar with the concept but at the moment it will probably only appeal to two types of people – nerds who like to play with different techy things and people who use their mobile a lot and do the same things often.
The two main use cases for NFC tags are programming tasks for yourself and programming information for other people, as I mentioned before. Programming information for other people is probably something that would appeal to marketing types. You could use it on a trade show stall to give visitors a link to online product information or something like that. Of course it will only work for customers who have a phone with NFC capability, which is turned on. If the technology takes off then it will be safer to assume that. At the moment QR codes are probably better as they are more widely known and used – though personally I haven’t bothered loading an app for them on my phone so they wouldn’t work on me.
Programming for yourself has more possibilities. In my opinion the tags have a lot of potential uses for somebody who depends on their phone, someone who has their whole life on their phone and is often doing the same thing on it.
Personally I hardly ever use my phone, not even as a phone, so I’m not likely to have much use for such technology. I don’t use Bluetooth, don’t even use mobile data, and so rarely get calls that it doesn’t matter if I forget to mute it when going into a meeting. I don’t update Facebook and Twitter when I am out and about, or upload photos as soon as I take them, or use Facebook or Foursquare to check in all the time. I don’t routinely connect and disconnect to different devices like earphones or car handsfree sets. If I did any of those things I would probably want to automate them, but I don’t.
NFC tags could be a major productivity boon to those whose lifestyle and phone use lend themselves to automation. For the rest of us it is just an intersting theoretical concept.
I guess the major problem is that it needs to be more widely used to really take off, but at the moment it is only available on Android and newer BlackBerry and Windows phones. Apple decided not to include it as a feature of any of their products so iPhone users can’t use it even if they wanted to – and they seem to be the people who most fit into the category of those whose life revolves around their phone.
The other drawback is one that a work colleague pointed out. The apps for programming tags do rewuire a lot of permissions and necessarily so. If you want to be able to automate tasks then the app needs to have access to all those tasks. If you are a bit paranoid about security then you will be in danger of coughing up your spine when you read all the permissions these apps want so it comes down to how much you trust them. The most popular ones like Trigger, MFC Tools and TagWriter all seem to be reputable but what do I know?
As for the Whiztags, the only drawback seems to be that they only do one type, which is a self-adhesive, laminated disk – plus a keytag which gets thrown in with a set. The tags do not work on metal surfaces because that interferes with the transmission. They are strong, the adhesive works very well, but sometimes you might want something thinner perhaps, or less sticky, or something to stick to metal surfaces magnetically. They are, however, good value for money, and not too expensive – you could buy a set even if you can only think of one or two uses.
I don’t think I’ll be doing much with mine, although when my phone is next due for an upgrade I’ll make sure I get one with NFC on it and then things might change.
[*] I am always happy for people to send me free stuff that I can play with and write about. I do wish that manufacturers of steam cleaners, decent saucepan sets and huge TVs picked up on this 🙂