Apple Enables iPhone NFC Tag Scanning

Apple have announced that there will be a Core NFC function built into iOS 11. This will allow NFC tag scanning on the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 plus. NFC tag scanning will also be enabled on watchOS 4 which will allow the Apple Watch to scan NFC tags.

According to Apple's developer website, "Using Core NFC, you can read Near Field Communication (NFC) tags of types 1 through 5 that contain data in the NFC Data Exchange Format (NDEF).".

This is a significant change and it's worth looking at the implications for the NFC industry.

QR Code Scanning

So it might seem a little strange to start this discussion talking about QR Code scanning but this is important. Apple also announced that QR Code scanning will now be built into the camera functionality on the iPhone. Sure, QR Codes are the enemy of NFC tags so NFC.Today shouldn't make too much noise about this. However, the addition of both QR Code scanning without an additional App and NFC Tag reading means something. It means that Apple is almost certainly looking at the internet of things in a new light. The ability to interact with objects and the connection of a physical space or object with a virtual space.

Back To NFC Tag Scanning

At the moment, exact details are a little vague but it would appear that Apple will enable the iPhone to read the standard data space of an NFC tag provided it has been encoded with NFC NDEF data. NDEF data is a predefined data structure which has been laid down by the NFC Forum (of which Apple are a recent member).

What isn't clear yet is a number of important factors.

NFC Tag UID Reading

Firstly, whether the iPhone will be able to scan an NFC Tag's UID. Each NFC Tag has a unique ID which, in theory, means that the tag can be uniquely identified. In reality, it's a very low level of security as the UID can be easily cloned. However, it's good enough in a large number of general use cases where the supply chain or access to the tags is secure and/or not likely to be tampered with. At the moment, it would appear that Apple's iPhone will not be able to read the UID. In our opinion, this isn't much of a big deal. The UID isn't really secure and therefore storing data within the memory space is typically just as good. Where it may cause a problem is that Android can read the UID and therefore there are a number of existing NFC project which did use it. But many of those will have been built around Android in any event.

NFC Tag Encoding

Secondly, it's not clear whether the Apple iPhone will be able to write to (encode) NFC Tags. This is reasonably important because there are a number of applications where it's useful to be able to store data on the tags as well as read. However, NFC Tags are not data stores. They work best as identifiers with cloud based data stores and therefore it's not something that will missed.

Low Level Commands

Thirdly, it's not clear and indeed it looks unlikely that Apple will allow the use of low level commands to interact with the tags. It appears that the phone will read the NFC tags and simply pass on any valid NDEF data. This, we would consider, is very important. Without this ability, genuinely secure tag verification becomes very difficult. There's little guarantee that the tag being scanned is actually the tag it's supposed to be as the standard NDEF data could come from any tag. Sure, there are some tags which can change data on each scan and so on but as we've discussed before, it's not a rock solid secure NFC tag strategy.

Tag Scan Performance

Now this is the big one. The NFC 'antenna' in the iPhone 7 is not big. It's very small. We know from various iPhone breakdowns that there's a boost circuit in there to increase the performance but you are still going to challenge the laws of physics. A small induction coil is going to struggle to create energy in an NFC tag. In return, that's likely to mean very close and very accurate phone positioning to read the tags. Additionally, the design and size of the NFC tag being read is likely to be vital. Too small and it'll not create enough energy to communicate. Too large and you could easily end up with a 'dead spot' in the middle of the tag and reduced overall performance.

The reason that this is crucial is that no brand is going to want a bad experience. The key to NFC tag scanning is that 'magic' response and waving the phone around to read a tag isn't going to be much good.

Clearly, Apple are rather good at doing technical things and it's possible that the phone will scan as well as the larger antenna coil Android phones (which typically have an antenna covering a big part of the back of the phone). However, a bad experience will cause a number of problems very quickly.

QR Codes Again

Which brings us back to the QR Code issue. On the face of it, Apple are looking at QR Codes and NFC tags as an 'internet of things' type of setup. The ability to quickly interact - at a basic level - with objects. In fact, at this stage, the level of interactivity provided by the QR Code and NFC tag reading looks very similar. Things may change but if it's simply an NDEF scan then an NFC tag will pass generally similar data to a QR Code.

To be clear, most closed loop (medical, asset tracking, etc) applications that use NFC tags already are comfortable with Android. There's no need to switch. Sure, the BYOD (bring your own device) areas might have some benefit but the device price difference doesn't make it attractive.

If Apple only allows NDEF reading then, in our opinion, the use of NFC tags for genuinely secure identification isn't resolved. It's a marketing thing. A very cool marketing thing and one that's likely to make quite a bit of noise, but a marketing thing all the same. However, NFC Tags cost money where a QR Code doesn't.

Therefore, the key factor will be which of the user experiences works the best. Waving the phone to scan a QR Code or waving the phone to scan an NFC tag.