The Problem With RFID

RFID is like cold fusion. It will revolutionise everything - and it's only five years away!
Terence Eden

And, much like cold fusion, NFC will permantently be just around the corner. It's been "The Year of NFC" since 2008. Just like it was in 2009 and in 2010.

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.
NFC Magic

The Shortcomings of NFC - A Rant In Several Parts

Mass Market Penetration

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.

Handset Cost

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?

There are two problems with this

  1. The cost of sending out over 60 million SIMs to every phone in the UK is expensive.
  2. 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

Black Ink.

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.

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 CaseQR CodesNFC Tags
Scanning DistanceAny distance. From a billboard to a beer mat.Under 10 cm - preferably touching.
Lighting ConditionsPreferably well lit - camera flash may work in dark conditionsAny
DamageError 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.
InteractionOpen QR scanner, wait.Open NFC scanner, wait.
The reason you can't have your NFC scanner running the whole time is twofold.

  1. It's a battery drain.
  2. Every time you wander within 10 cm of a tag, the phone in your pocket is going to buzz. Every time you place your phone on a pub table, it's going to go crazy scanning every RFID beermat in the vicinity.
MultiplesMove 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.

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.
RFID logos

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.

Final Thoughts

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

Don't Panic QR Code

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18 thoughts on “The Problem With RFID”

  1. says:

    The Google Nexus S is NFC-enabled and working now.

    For QR codes to catch-on native camera apps need to start recognising them. Unless that happens we might as well tread water until NFC-enabled devices are commonplace... and given the various manufacturer's recent announcements that looks like ~2 years.

  2. Good article, I personally think that there is a place for both technologies to co-exist and there will be times when one is better than the other. Price is of course a major factor and NFC will always be an order of magnitude or more greater then QR.
    Another issue that you can have with NFC is when the tag is in close proximity to metal. NFC tags stuck to lamp posts or bus shelter sign boards will usually not work at all.

  3. Douglas McDonald says:

    Some points:

    NFC and QR can do different things in different contexts. A print ad or a poster can't be NFC enabled but can have a 2D code. My view is (in the future) where you can use NFC you should. Why? It will be the easiest way to interact for the (future) mass market.

    The real contest, today, is not with 2D and NFC but between 2D and SMS. The quickest, simplest and most universal way to get a consumer to online content is to text a keyword to a short code and include a link to the (mobile) site. Of course, SMS costs money and is not easy to set up in thye US but here you can get that done for £500. In contrast with SMS, QR still has no case studies of mass usage and is not likely to ever be a good way to prompt interaction from consumers as an advertising call to action. QR is more appropriate in contexts such as in retail stores (such as the "more info" functionality on Best Buy shelves in the US.

    QR... a zombie that was never fully alive?

    1. Hi Doug,

      Three main points.

      1) Why is NFC "easiest"? Is it any quicker? Any simpler to understand? What can it do that makes it "the future"?

      2) Creating a QR code to send an SMS is dead simple - smsto:12345:INFO - scanning in is much quicker than typing in long numbers and keywords.

      3) QR codes are everywhere. Movie posters, newspapers, banners, graffiti. Take a look at this post about ubiquitous QR codes.

      Thanks for your comment.


  4. Douglas McDonald says:


    1) I'm no NFC guru - but I think (?) NFC doesn't require you do anything but hold the phone close - QR means you have to open an app (which no-one can tell us how many people have)and then scan.

    2) Are you seriously saying that opening an app - getting up to the code and then scanning is easier than sending an SMS to get a url in the reply? That a code is faster than Text PEPSI to 8XXXX? Also - everyone - 90% - of people send texts daily - and no-one knows how many scan - though all stats I've seen say it's a total loser as an ad call to action.

    3) Just because marketers persuade clients to stick codes on things doesn't mean people use them. ScanLife in the US did a national campaign for Droid (tech audience, relevant to product) that generated 150,000 scans. It would have been worse if it was a standard FMCG/CPG product. I have done hundreds of campaigns with SMS CTA in the UK that have produced millions of responses with a smaller TA and less promotion.

    There is a place for QR - more as a "more info" mechanism (BestBuy US) for consumers who are already interested - but it's a clunky way to do what an SMS CTA does faster and more easily for consumers.


    1. Hi Douglas,

      Thanks for your comment - I'll do my best to answer your questions.

      1) NFC does require you to activate "something" on your phone. On some devices it's a specific key, on others it's an app. There's two reasons you don't want NFC continually running - battery drainage and your phone buzzing every time you're near an NFC tag.

      Regarding the number of QR readers. A cursory glance at the major app stores show that they are heavily downloaded. The number of shipping NFC phones is close to zero.

      2) Yes, I am. Clicking on my QR reader icon is a quick as clicking on my SMS compose icon. Scanning in a code is (usually) sub-second. I would say they are of comparable speed.
      Here's a video I created to demonstrate it

      I agree that people are used to SMS promos - but they weren't always. I think QR is lifting off in the same way SMS did in the late 1990s.

      3) Regarding volume and stats. In 2009 I blogged about Pepsi's QR campaign
      They said the codes generated...

      Over 12 million views of their “viral” videos, and hits to their site exceeding any previous promotion.

      See some of my more recent posts for more statistics.

      I'm not saying that SMS is dead or dying - I think it's a great service. But I do think that QR codes are a great way of accessing information - and whether that comes through via SMS, email, or WWW doesn't matter.

      I'm saying that QR is poised to take over as the standard CTA. It isn't there yet - but I think it's wise to take notice of it now.

  5. Douglas McDonald says:

    Hi Terence,

    I love a good disagreement!

    I do get, however, that you are saying that people should be aware of it's future potential - not that they should use it exclusively right now. My view is, why not stick it on there as it's free - as long as you have the current best solution promoted first - SMS. Not SMS responses from QR - asking people to send in texts to get the info.

    So - to respond.

    1) In which case NFC won't be a good choice for an ad CTA either!

    2) Fair enough but you are an expert scanner and, at best, it's as quick as SMS, not quicker. So.... maybe once everyone (and I mean really almost everyone) has a barcode reader and knows how to use them then it'll be a contender! Until then - lead with SMS as CTA.

    3) That Pepsi campaign was a disaster from a QR, if not PR, perspective - IMO - I saw a pres from the agency that sold it to Pepsi. It got a load of PR for novelty value and pretty much all the hits were related to "WTF how do I use that?" The 590 million cans got a grand total of c.30,000 scans. That's a scan rate of 0.005%. If they had done the same promotion using SMS they could have got maybe 1% - 2%.

    So a huge PR success but surely a failure for QR in terms of scans?

    Seriously, I use QR a lot from app reviews to Android Market to scanning them whenever I see them and feel it may have a future in product discovery/shopper marketing etc.

    It's just NOT a good choice for ad CTA's until 2) above has happened.


    1. I think we're probably in violent agreement with each other 🙂

      I don't think that NFC is the future - see my other posts on this.
      I agree that SMS is the best CTA at the moment. Even a non expert scanner will be able to scan in a code faster than they can type in a URL (accurately).
      Re Pepsi - it was a few years ago but I was talking to their mobile team, not the PR team, and they seemed fairly pleased with it. Compare it to an early days SMS campagain and I think it stacks up well. Were they to repeat the exercise this year, I think it would do great business for them.

      Thanks for your comments - much appreciated.

  6. Douglas McDonald says:

    Yes - we are!

    I agree the shift from Feature to Smartphones would have made the Pepsi campaign work better now than it did then. On your other point, I also think that the uptake of SMS vs. uptake of QR will be very different for loads of reasons (massively slower).

    All I ask is that companies go into these type of things with their eyes open and are not peddled things that won't do what they need today or aren't made aware of the alternatives.

    The point being that we need to offer the right tech level for all of the people we want to reach otherwise you sacrifice consumer interaction.

    Keep up the good work!


  7. Jerome Chavanel says:

    Hi There,

    interesting post, since I am in NFC business daily and obviously you are not.

    We try comparing a dishwasher and a washing machine? Both do cleaning, but in the end they aren't really designed for the same purpose, are they?

    I don't really think that an EMV application or a PKI application can be ported on QR Codes; NFC is designed for it. NFC is not only about tag reading: there are 3 functioning modes (smartcard emulation, reader emulation and peer-to-peer), so potential is much bigger than just storing/ reading a url.

    Now, as to determine if Tag format is better in QR codes or NFC (RFID) stickers? It is only a matter of wanting to determine if the advertising/ message will require future updates or dynamic content. Data storage capability is not the same as well, neither is the price. It is much more linked to application context than a matter of knowing who is best from technology point of view.

    NFC will spread, otherwise big names wouldn't look into it, the only question is to do what: Open your car / house door? Sign online your loan? Use it as transit card on the phone? Smart ads? I don't see it as a QR code killer, it is just different.

  8. Having used both for work, we have had success with rfid where it is used to make an object “magic” when placed in certain places, & success with qr where it makes an object interactive with your phone. In other words: rfid = reader still, tag moves, qr = reader moves, tag still


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