RFID is like cold fusion. It will revolutionise everything - and it's only five years away!
Today the news came that Google may be abandoning QR codes in favour of NFC for its business places service. I think this is a mistake and that NFC is too far away to be of any real use. Indeed, I think NFC will permanently be too far away.
That said, NFC technology is awesome. It has a serious cool factor going for it which is best expressed in George Nimeh's seminal post on the subject.
The Shortcomings of NFC - A Rant In Several Parts
Mass Market Penetration
@edent NFC == Oyster card. I'd wager that 100x more people in london have _used_ NFC than have used QR codes
— Matt Millar (@millarm) March 31, 2011
Let's not dispute that NFC has found its way into the pockets of millions of people - via Oyster Cards and credit cards. But how many people have an NFC phone? None. Or as near to none as makes no difference.
I first saw NFC demo'd several years ago by Nokia. Once again, they had a killer technology embedded into a handset and - once again - they failed to follow it up. Today, only one Nokia phone has an NFC chip, the C7. But the chip is disabled until a future software update.
Even if every phone sold from today onwards were to contain NFC - how long would it take to get decent market penetration? Given that the majority of contracts in the UK are 18 - 24 months, you're looking at a lead time of at least two years before there's any real traction in the market.
Not to mention that many people keep their old phones forever! Take a look in your mobile website's logs - you'll be confounded by the amount of phones which are several years old.
What do QR codes require? A camera and the ability to run apps. AKA every phone sold over the last 5 years.
(Incidentally, Nokia - once again - screwed things up for the industry by putting a QR reader on the N95 and then excluding the software from every subsequent phone.)
It's a hell of a lot easier to get a piece of software on a phone than to upgrade it. It's also a hell of a lot cheaper.
There are two aspects to the cost issue with NFC.
The chips required within a phone cost a non-trivial amount of money. So does all the testing needed to make sure the hardware and software work.
Even if you don't embed the chip in the phone, distributing NFC capable covers is a huge cost - let alone getting customers to buy them and fit them.
Perhaps Operators could distribute NFC SIM cards?
@edent You can get NFC enabled SIM cards though. Operators could (in theory) offer upgraded SIM cards and get mass-market scale in weeks.
— ianVisits (@ianvisits) March 31, 2011
There are two problems with this
- The cost of sending out over 60 million SIMs to every phone in the UK is expensive.
- NFC SIM cards generally place an NFC tag in your phone - they don't allow you to read other tags.
Even if you could send a SIM card to everyone - and good luck finding those crucial PAYT handsets - you couldn't read other tags. Should that become possible it would take a massive effort to test the chip in the thousands of phone models out there.
The Cost Of QR Readers
Free. Now, the point about testing is still valid. But it's generally cheaper for a manufacturer to licence and embed software than it is to buy silicon chips, solder them in, and then licence and embed NFC software.
For the end user who purchased a phone without an QR reader - they can choose from dozens of free readers for thousands of different phones.
BeeTagg (mobile friendly site)
Kaywa Reader (mobile friendly site)
I-Nigma (mobile friendly site)
Neo Reader (mobile friendly site)
Google's ZXing (mobile friendly site)
QuickMark (non-mobile site).
HyperTouch for Android
...and many more.
The Cost of NFC tags for Providers
Imagine that you want to embed a cool NFC tag in your beermat.
While the cost of NFC tags is coming down - they're still very expensive. Shopping around shows single tags for around £2.00 each!
When buying in significant bulk, that can go down to around 30p per tag.
Which, if you're printing thousands of posters, beermats or whatever quickly adds up.
That doesn't include the cost of the NFC writer to program your tags. Nor the cost of testing each tag to see whether it works.
Nor does it include retooling your manufacturing or printing chain to either include the tags or stick them on with an adhesive.
If you're just a hobbyist, a tag set up will cost around $100.
All in all, that's a fairly hefty investment compared to QR codes.
The Cost of QR Codes for Providers
That is all.
If you're already printing posters, beer mats, decals, labels, packaging, or anything else - you may have to spend a few fractions of a penny on a drop more black ink.
It's free to create codes and it's free to print codes.
QR, I'll grant you, can give the impression of poor usability.
@edent then you have to open camera, get a steady, focused pic, process image etc. NFC could simplify the whole process to a single action?
— Alex Gibson (@alex_gibson) March 31, 2011
QR scanning on most phones is pain free. With more modern phones like Android, you can see how "Quick Response" codes got their name. It's incredibly quick. Usually under two seconds.
NFC clearly has the advantage here in that they are regularly sub-second.
But that's not the whole story.
Excuse me while I launch into a table...
|Use Case||QR Codes||NFC Tags|
|Scanning Distance||Any distance. From a billboard to a beer mat.||Under 10 cm - preferably touching.|
|Lighting Conditions||Preferably well lit - camera flash may work in dark conditions||Any|
|Damage||Error correction allows for up to 30% of the code to be obscured or damaged.||Unsure. Tags can be bent and deformed, but once the wires are damaged, reading can become impossible.|
|Interaction||Open QR scanner, wait.||Open NFC scanner, wait.|
The reason you can't have your NFC scanner running the whole time is twofold.
|Multiples||Move your camera to ensure that only one QR code is visible in the viewfinder at any one time. Multiple codes may confuse some readers.||You have no practical way of knowing which of the multiple NFC tags near your phone is being read.|
Is There An RFID Tag Here?
Which leads me on to the gripe which got me blogging.
The problem I have with NFC is that it requires an image or logo so you know there's an NFC tag available. Why not make that logo a QR code?
— Terence Eden (@edent) March 31, 2011
How can I tell if a poster or a beermat has an RFID tag for me to scan?
There are a bunch of RFID logos - none of which look very customer friendly to me.
What we need is an identifying mark which we can quickly and cheaply print on anything with an RFID tag. Perhaps something easily identifiable. Perhaps something that can easily be read by non-NFC devices...
Perhaps.... Can you see where I'm going with this?
There have already been trials of combined QR / NFC posters in Frankfurt.
NFC is an expensive solution to an already solved problem. The technical challenges and usability hurdles it presents are non-trivial.
While I've no doubt that NFC will become important in the coming years, I don't think it can surmount QR in the medium future.
Lest we forget, Motorola first started trialling NFC back in 2004. And where are we today? Still at exactly the same trial stage 7 year later. That's why I say that NFC is like cold fusion; permanently "just around the corner".
NFC is cool but QR codes are convenient and cheap. While Arthur C Clarke was right about advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, I defer to Douglas Adams' judgement in this matter.
The Hitchhiker's Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects.
First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words "DON'T PANIC" inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover