Many ideas easily transform into prototypes but the journey from that to a product which normal users can readily use daily can be quite long. For instance take wireless chargers, nowadays all gadgets are so mobile the only wire pinning us down to our place are the chargers. There were prototypes of it shown in many places the most notable and credible I have seen was this presentation in TED. Researchers had talked about it for years , have demoed at different places, but working in a big company I now know the big effort required in transforming something that works a dozen times to something that can work reliably for millions of users. You need an ecosystem to make a successful product – users, reasonable cost, support system.

I digress, so let me come back to the title and how it is related to this prototype-product analogy. Over more than 6 years I have heard of people using mobile to just swipe for payments, mobile as RFIDs, mobile as credit cards, mobiles in ATMs to charge money by just getting the device near an ATM machine. It all uses a technology called Near Field Communication (NFC in short), which is a short range wireless communication which enables exchange of data between devices over about a 10 centimeter distance. But really it never happened in mainstream and I think it is about to break the tipping point to enter our lives, for real users at real places. I bet by 2011 we all will be shaking and rotating our mobiles in weird ways to get things done.

Why do I think so – signs everywhere. First comes the slew of patents from Apple (some of which I will be describing below) about different ways in which NFC can redefine some of our daily activities. Then comes the hiring of Benjamin Vigier and NFC expert to apple few days back and last week TechCrunch having an article about NFC based iphone prototypes. There are few times when you hear about a technology something suddenly clicks in your head and you whisper ‘that can be big’ (like when I first heard about the start up Siri) and I did hear myself whispering this time too. If you are wondering in a world of peer-peer wifi, bluetooth , how a 10cm communication technology can breakthrough let me give some sample applications

Redefining shopping experience or Point of Purchase –

What does a typical shopping process consists of ? You go to a super market, find the location of the item and if you are more of a tech user, scan the bar code of the item and get the comparison prices in shops around you , see the reviews in amazon and decide to purchase. But from the decision to finishing the purchase includes many more different systems (as merchants would call it point-of-purchase or POP) , one to scan your item to get its price and another device to collect your credit card info and transmit the info and collect your payment. Do you remember occasions when you decided to leave an item because the queue for sales was long or decided not to see a movie since you are too bored to stand in the queue. Think of a system which makes the whole transaction simple – use your mobile get the info the product , which contacts merchant’s system to give your purchase details , transfer money and grab the item and disappear. May be the shopping cart can do all these for you or there could be more innovative ways as this apple patent describes.

Redefine data transfer between devices –

Data transfer between devices is still a pain, what if transferring music from itunes to mobile is as simple as getting your mobile close to laptop. How many times do you have to mail the url or the map from laptop to mobile since there was no easy way to type that url or search in mobile. What if these transfers can be done by just bringing the devices close to each other. Get the digicam next to your laptop and the photo transfers starts, get your laptop close to your TV to get your photos on to TV, get your mobiles together to transfer money. Here NFC can work together with other high speed technologies like bluetooth but without the normal overhead of paring devices entering passwords etc.

Redefine traveling experience. [or may be a future iTravel app – swipe your mobile for travel tickets]

No better way to describe than this Apple patent summary – “The handheld device may store and transmit travel reservations and traveler identifications using a travel management application. Various methods may be employed to acquire the reservation and identification information on the handheld device. For example, travel reservations may be made via the management application or may be retrieved from an email, a website, another NFC-enabled device, or a carrier-provided confirmation number. User identification may be acquired by scanning a radio frequency identification tag embedded in a government-issued I.D. In another embodiment, an I.D. number may be entered via the travel management application, and the user’s identification information may be downloaded from the issuing authority.”

I bet iphone 5 would all about NFC, time to invest in apple stocks if you have not already done that :)

Other examples of NFC applications :

– Obviously no more credit cards – Just swipe your mobiles at the store.
RFID tag readers , this can be very interesting.
– Instant product research using NFC , Apple recently filed a very detailed patent (83 pages) on various possibilities on this , you can read about the details here.
– All identification documents detected automatically from mobile.