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Peter Cochrane's Blog: Near-field tech edges closer

Clock's ticking for credit cards - soon all payments will be at the swipe of a mobile…

Written on the London-to-Ipswich train and dispatched to silicon.com at 90mph via the free in-carriage wi-fi.

All civilisations are governed by the availability of technology, and progress is defined by their ability and speed to adopt, adapt and change.

About 20 years ago I was involved in the development of near-field communications (NFC) technology. At the time it was called radio frequency identification, or RFID for short. It mostly involved loop antennas for the transmission of information and the transfer of power. A few of the devices had batteries, but the electronic content was always minimal.

At the time, there were a number of tech challenges but the biggest was getting the cost right down to compete with barcodes. The advantages were manifest in the ability to scan boxes, carts and shelves of objects in one pass, or instantly recognise items without any visual scanning.

Every sector from manufacturing and retail to medicine and the military was a target, with inventory and integrated-use management the ultimate goal. The grand vision was a universal method of managing raw materials through production, sales, delivery, use and support to recycling.

In Europe's largest near-field comms trial in the Spanish city of Sitges, shoppers pay for goods using their mobiles

In Europe's largest near-field comms trial in the Spanish city of Sitges, shoppers pay for goods using their mobiles
Photo: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com

Has all this happened? Not yet. But it is getting an awful lot closer. Fast cost breaks have now been achieved, performance enhanced, and the rollout to high value-add areas, including some parts of manufacturing and retail, and much of the modern military, has happened with great effect.

The next big deal is coming from the direction of the mobile phone. A NFC/RFID reader integrated into your phone complete with transaction processing will change everything. No doubt some hybrids using NFC and barcode readers will be on the market first, but the final outcome will be the same.

In the meantime, one big tech challenge remains. How do you get an antenna to work when it is attached to an aluminium surface with air on one side and a water-based fluid on the other? And how do you do it at a price that makes it viable for a canned drink?

So far there are two clues: the technology used on stealth aircraft and boats - but this requires expensive meta-materials, and most drink cans contain little ferrous material. So? Shall we say that people in the lab are working on it, and leave it at that.

What are the implications of NFC? To all intents and purposes cheques have already gone. Coins, paper money and plastic cards are going to be the next casualties. Don't believe me? Then visit Korea. The only people who own a plastic credit card there are the ones who travel abroad; everyone else uses their mobile phone.

How long will all this take to transfer to the West? Probably the next 10 to 15 years. Why? Because that is how long it takes a society and its institutions to change. And who will be affected? Everyone, every business and institution will feel this wave, and society will never be the same again.

So who is going to lead the charge - excuse the pun? I have my money on Apple and Google, and none of the old industry conglomerates, which naturally have all their vested interests rooted in the past.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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