Apple’s iPhone can finally scan NFC tags. What now ?


On the 12th September 2017, Apple officially unveiled the latest version of their operating system iOS 11. For NFC fans, this new release was all important as it was the first to allow access to the on-board NFC controller. Prior to iOS 11, NFC communication tech had only been used for Payments. Now with iOS 11, any of the later iPhones, including the iPhone X, iPhone 8 and iPhone 7 can scan NFC tags.

So this is it ? This is the big moment the NFC community has been waiting for ? Well, not quite and this is why.

Going native

In short, you need an App. To scan an NFC tag using iOS 11 you will need to download an NFC App. There’s no native support for scanning tags which means that you can’t scan the tags ‘out of the box’. In the opinion of NFC.Today this is a big deal but not necessarily a deal breaker.

Android added support for NFC back in their API Level 9 Gingerbread release in 2010. That’s quite a long time ago and NFC has become firmly established in the Android feature set. One of the key benefits with Android has been that NFC support is native. Providing NFC is switched on, a user can wave their phone over an NFC tag and it will scan and respond. No Apps are required and the phone is clever enough to know what to do. For example, if you scan a tag with a website address, it will open that web address.

But Apple still isn’t there yet. And this App barrier creates two separate but closely related problems. The first is that users who see an NFC tag will not be able to scan. The majority are unlikely to go looking for an NFC App just to scan. The second is that many iPhone users may not be aware that they need an App. This means that they may try and scan a tag and assume it’s broken. We’ll look at these two things separately.

App download barrier

The scenario runs like this. User walks into a supermarket and looks for toothpaste. On reaching the toothpaste aisle, the user is confronted with a stack of different toothpaste brands and products. One of the shelves has an NFC enabled ad message telling the user to scan for advice. In the ideal version of events, the user would get out their iPhone, scan the tag and get more information. At the moment, the user will get our their iPhone, go to the App store, try and find an App that a. looks reliable and b. is free. With any luck, they will choose one and download and install it. Then, they’ll need to open the App, work out how to use it, scan the tag and hope they don’t have to either a. work out why they are now looking at an advert or b. avoid paying some random in-App fee. It doesn’t work.

The broken scenario

The second scenario runs like the first. However, instead of downloading the App, the user just tries to scan the NFC tag because well, ‘the iPhone has NFC now doesn’t it ?’. Nothing happens and the user now has a negative brand association. In the case of our toothpaste buyer, the feeling that the broken tag has created isn’t going to help the brand selection. It’s not ideal. Clearly, the shelf label could explain they need an App, iOS 11, one of the latest iPhones, etc. But nobdody reads the small print do they ?

iPhone NFC applications

All of this discussion is based around casual consumer use of NFC. However, there is a substantial and growing use of NFC within asset management and a whole range of similar areas. In these cases, the user can be expected to be able and willing to download either an NFC or more likely a specific NFC App to scan the tags. For example, a company might embed tags in clothing to prevent counterfeits entering the supply chain. The suppliers and retailers can then be asked to download an NFC App specifically for the purpose of checking the tags.

The problem here is that Android NFC support is better (because it can write to tags as well as read), the phones can be purchased cheaper and Android is more widesperad. Any developer working on this type of project is more likely to turn to Android first.

Because of this, it’s the opinion of NFC.Today that Apple’s decision to not allow the iPhone to read to NFC tags is a substantially smaller barrier than native support. Tech developers who are going to develop a closed loop NFC system aren’t going to be too upset about the lack of write support in the iPhone because they are probably going to prefer Android anyway. Additionally, the number of applications that really require tag writing is very small. The ones that do are almost certainly designed incorrectly. NFC.Today have always maintained that NFC tags are an identifier or a link to data rather than data itself. As long as the tag has some unique ID which can be either the tag’s normal UID or one encoding during (or just after) production then that should be enough.

The iPhone NFC light at the end of the tunnel

The key is getting that use case between casual marketing – our toothpaste scenario – and closed loop App downloads – our supply chain fraud scenario. It’s the marketing spot where it’s worth the user downloading an App to interact with a tag. There have been a few recent cases where this might be starting to happen. The NFC campaign for Kilchoman whisky was an example of this. The brand runs a club and they want people to join. While the user is enjoying the product, they can spend time learning how to scan the tag and so on. There’s a direct benefit. They can access special offers, product information and so on. It’s worth the effort.

However, the really interesting area is consumer level counterfeit detection. If you spend hundreds of pounds/dollars/euros on some designer something, you’d like to know it’s real. The benefit of knowing it’s real will easily balance the hassle of having to download an App. So the brand adds an NFC tag and a little information that they need to download the brands special App. COnsumer checks the NFC tag, brand gets access to the customer via the App – everyone’s a winner.

The conclusion

We aren’t there yet. NFC will not be a fully mainstream product until all phone have native support. It’s a step in the right direction. Perhaps even a big step which will open up an exciting new range of marketing campaigns and applications. But it’s not the final step.

NFC.Today mentioned in an earlier article on this topic that Apple’s inclusion of native QR Code scanning support in iOS 11 is a big deal. It’s an even bigger deal in respect of NFC in that Apple know perhaps more than any brand that to get users to use a technology, you have to make it easy to use. Native QR code scanning might just be a step towards native NFC tag scanning.

And that would really be the final step.

Whatever happens, there are certain areas of the NFC market that will change very quickly.