What is “NFC” – and why would you care?

By | August 5, 2019
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If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in 14 years of writing about computers, it’s that techies love a good bit of confusing jargon.

Especially taking a phrase that’s already confusing and making it even more confusing by making some sort of word or abbreviation out of the first letters.

I mean, I understand you don’t always want to have to say “HyperText Transfer Protocol” when you could just say http… but there are piles and piles of these acronyms.

(My favourite is not generally used any more: TWAIN, which stands for Technology Without An Impressive Name.)

And you might have heard of “NFC” – especially if you’ve bought a new phone in the last couple of years (or just been looking for one).

It stands for “Near Field Communication” which might not make it totally clear…

It’s a way for your phone to communicate with some other device (could be another phone or could be something else) when they’re close to each other – maybe half an inch or so apart.  In practice it usually means one is placed on top of the other.

What’s it used for?  Well, the most common use at the moment is probably for payments.

Have you used a contactless credit or debit card – where you don’t have to put it in the slot when you pay, you just tap it on top of the shop’s card reader?

That’s NFC.  And nowadays you can install Apple Pay or Android Pay on most modern phones, set it up and then use your phone to pay by putting it on the shop’s card reader, instead of using an actual card.

Not all shops can accept Apple Pay or Android Pay just because they can accept contactless cards, but many can and it’s becoming more common.

It’s not just for payments, either.  I’m not sure many shops have done this yet, but there’s no reason they couldn’t use it for loyalty cards, so if you had the card set up on your phone you could tap that on the sensor instead of using a physical card. It could be useful for this even if you didn’t want to use it for payments as it could save you having a wallet full of loyalty cards!

(This is a bit different to the way many shops use phones for loyalty cards at the moment, where you have to start the app for that shop to get a QR style barcode that you scan.)

And even away from shopping, you can use NFC to transfer photos or video or whatever from one phone to another, as long as you put one right next to the other.  It’s different from using bluetooth, if you’ve ever used that, because it has to be much closer – and I’m told it can transfer photos much faster.

Of course, with using it for payments, people worry about security – could someone detect your phone being used and get all the details off it?

Well, in theory that could happen, but since the connection is only over very short distances, they’d have to be within less than an inch of your phone at the time.

And if your phone is ever lost or stolen, then as long as it’s set up properly, you can wipe it from a distance by using an account on a PC or tablet using an app like “Find my iPhone”.

Anyway, as usual, I’m not trying to talk you into using it – or into not using it!  That’s up to you – but at least now you know what it is so you can choose properly!

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