Why I Don't Need NFC (yet)

NFC lets you "beam" photos and playlists and other stuff to another phone by simply holding them together (back to back). This is a much touted feature that is rarely useful. Back when I had my Palm Treo 680 it had infrared beam feature. In the 3.5 years of owning that device I used the feature perhaps twice. Why is it so useless?

- Mostly when I want to share something with somebody I would rather do it over WiFi so I need not be in proximity to the person. Email and messaging work great for this sort of sharing. Why is holding the phones together required or even cooler in any way?

- The person you want to share with has to have a phone that supports the feature. With my Palm Treo 680, the person I wanted to share with had to also have a Palm device. Even with the "business card beam" feature on Palm, I found that everybody still carried the printed business cards for that reason. Many lower end Android phones don't even have NFC. So why use NFC over messaging or email when support for the latter two are ubiquitous?

The other supposedly cool feature about NFC is mobile payments. The problem is that only 5% of shopping locations support NFC payments. I have yet to see a vending machine that accepts NFC payments. What good is NFC is I have to carry my wallet anyway? Why not just whip out my credit card and use it rather than look like a moron trying to show off some feature on my smartphone that might not even work when I try to use it. I remember trying to use one of those bar-code-generating loyalty card apps on my iPhone and asking the clerk at Albertsons to scan my iPhone screen with the laser. The laser had trouble with reading the screen but could easily read a simple printed barcode. I sat their looking like an idiot in line while everybody just stared at me. Finally, I realized that I did not even need that app because I could just punch in my phone number to the credit card terminal and it would lookup my Albertsons card. That's when I realized that technology for technology's sake is detrimental and embarrassing. That is where NFC payments are today -- they are simply embarrassing and since you have to carry your credit card anyway, why not use it and save yourself the hassle?

What NFC does give you is a big fat security hole. The Samsung GS3 was just hacked at Pwn2Own by none other technology than NFC. The hack simply requires that you place one phone against the back of another (something that somebody walking by you in a crowd could easily succeed in doing). Once the payload is delivered to the receiver it is opened (no questions asked) and the attacker can gain access to the entire contents of the phone.

So to me NFC sounds like a cool future technology for which the benefits do not yet outweigh the risks. If you ask me there needs to be a better way to enable NFC on a device for security reasons (e.g.: fingerprint scan). Secondly, NFC payments need to be accepted at more places (and most vending machines) before it becomes useful. Finally, we already have tons of technologies for sharing data that don't even require close proximity. These technologies even allow you to share with lots of folks at once via a "broadcast". Sure there will be niche situations where NFC sharing is more useful, but again, the security risks are not overcome by the benefits. Further, I have completely ignored the implementation hassle of NFC requiring a large antenna that is typically wrapped around the battery, thus reducing space inside the device for other components like a larger battery.

I look forward to a future where NFC (or a technology like it) solves these problems and makes it very useful. Ideally my smartphone would scan a 30 meter radius, identify potential receivers for something and allow me to share something with them (like AirDrop on a MacBook). Then the recipients would have the option to accept or reject what I am sending them. I don't deny that would be cool. But NFC is not something I am just dying to have. Today, I could do without.