Apple opens up iPhone to NFC tags with iOS 11, but functionality still limited

Friday 15 September 2017 | 15:57 CET | Background

Apple will introduce NFC tag reading with iOS 11 on 19 September. This means that some of the contactless features in the iPhone or Watch will be available to app developers, with Core NFC as Apple calls it. At this point however it can only read tags, not modify them or exchange data. Furthermore, the use is limited to the new iPhone 8 and X, as well as iPhone 7. It will be up to developers to invent use cases, but initially, these seem to be limited to a few scenarios endorsed directly by Apple. Core NFC is a limited interface compared to the full NFC functionality.

NFC tags exist in many forms and shapes. The standardization efforts have resulted in five different types, with varying data transfer speeds, payloads (from 96 bytes to KBs) and levels of protection, in the NFC Data Exchange Format (NDEF). 

Tags are generally used for quickly identifying objects, locations or people. They can be used for inventory management, or for access to a restricted area, such as entry to a ski lift.

Core NFC for tag reading

With Core NFC in iOS 11, Apple has enabled any app to access the NFC functions in the phone. A few restrictions still apply. Apps can only start a NFC session if they are running in the foreground – when the iPhone user is actively engaging with the app. The scanning mode can be used for one-time reading, or for up to 60 seconds to add multiple tags to a list. 

Apple first introduced the functionality at the WWDC developer conference in June. It will be up to developers to decide what to do with it. 

Gym equipment as signature use case

Apple announced that manufacturers of gym equipment will be able to use NFC. A compatible Apple device can be paired with a gym machine. The primary use case is with an Apple Watch. That can register running pace and heart rate and send that data to a screen in front of the athlete. 

The treadmill can send data back to the Watch, so the user can register distances and simulated gradients in a workout. That way, Apple and the machine vendor are able to offer a tightly controlled user experience, but only for a small group of users. 

Another restriction is the fact that Core NFC is available only on the iPhone 7 or 7 Plus and the new iPhone 8 and iPhone X models. Only models less than one year old will get the update.  

The newest iPhones also come with new support for virtual reality/augmented reality. This means developers could for example use a NFC tag to bring a dinosaur or other museum object 'alive' in VR or to enable in-game characters or items. However, the limited installed base will affect other potential use cases. 

NFC read/write still unavailable to developers

Tag Reading is a basic protocol, with unidirectional information. With NFC it is also possible to modify tags (in read/write mode) or use NFC for device pairing. For example, the device that scans the code also sends out a code that can be used to pair another device like headphones or a headset to a phone. 

This read/write NFC functionality would be required for more elaborate services, such as metering and ticketing in public transport. Bluetooth beaconing for this application has never taken off due to all the restrictions imposed by Apple. 

This means that for retail for now, the NFC tag is not a viable option for services. A retailer could use QR codes instead, which are also supported by older iPhones and all Android devices. 

The leading banks in Australia have found out that Apple is not willing to give third parties access to the NFC technology that powers Apple Pay. Three top Australian banks are suing Apple for in an attempt to gain greater control over Apple Pay, so far without results

As the court case in Australia has shown, Apple has no intention of giving developers access to the full NFC functionality that powers Apple Pay card payment. Apple seems equally reluctant to open up the less demanding NFC read/write functionalities. From 19 September, the iPhone will be slightly more connected to the NFC ecosystem, but still not fully. 

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