There’s been a lot of excitement in some quarters around Google’s decision to enable near-field communications (NFC) data-sharing in Android 4 “Ice Cream Sandwich.” The news builds on Research in Motion’s inclusion of NFC in its latest crop of BlackBerrys and Microsoft’s announcement that it would add NFC APIs to its Windows Phone 7 smartphone OS in 2012.

You can add to that hubbub Apple’s recent adoption of the Bluetooth 4 spec (aka Bluetooth Smart) in its iPhone 4S and the finalization a year ago of the Wi-Fi Direct standard. These three technologies allow direct connections among devices, eliminating the need for a router or other network for communication.

Most of the early NFC buzz was around mobile payments, where a smartphone could communicate payment information to a point-of-sales (POS) terminal. But that technology is old news — contactless payment cards have been around for years, though not widely used.

Plus, you don’t really need two-way communication for such payments. Contactless payment technologies such as RFID serve the same purpose by presenting the user identity to the payment terminal, which then connects to the payment system over the network — is exactly how debit cards and credit cards already work. RFID has been proposed for such usage for a decade, but that hasn’t happened much either. Honestly, swiping a debit card is not a big deal, so the rationale for retooling the entire payment system is suspect.

But if you look beyond POS payments, something more interesting — and useful — is going on. That’s the idea of ad hoc networks, where people can exchange information among one another and/or a collection of their own devices without an active Internet connection. Think iCloud without a network.

We’ve seen a variety of starts in such short-range connections. Remember the “bump to sync” apps for iOS that used the motion sensor to detect brief physical contact between two iPhones to allow business-card exchange? Or the touch-to-sync feature in some Palm smartphones and the Hewlett-Packard TouchPad that used a tangible touch to trigger sensors and initiate a transfer of information such as current URL or current email message from one device to another? NFC, Wi-Fi Direct, and Bluetooth get rid of the tactile kickoff.

Speaking of Bluetooth, why do we need anything else for ad hoc networking? Isn’t that the whole point of the technology? It is, but several problems have restrainted Bluetooth’s use. One limit is its dependence on profiles that all devices need to know about in order to connect. That becomes a nightmare for device makers to manage, and efforts by groups such as the Open Mobile Terminal Platform only partially address the issue.

Another limit is its need for explicit pairing, which usually takes several steps that users are unlikely to take for casual sharing, such as in an elevator or lobby. It’s one thing to make the effort to pair your Bluetooth headset to your smartphone, as you’ll use that pair repeatedly in the future, but quite another to do so in a meeting room with someone you just met and may never see again.

A third limit is that Bluetooth saps power fast. The new Bluetooth 4 spec addresses that, but chips are only now coming to the market, and the iPhone 4S is so far the only nonsensor device to use it. The new Bluetooth spec also speeds the data throughput, a limitation in previous versions that made it unsuitable for large file shares, screen sharing, or video streaming.

Then there’s Wi-Fi Direct, a recent standard meant to enable ad hoc networks using devices’ Wi-Fi radios. Again, the notion of ad hoc Wi-Fi is not new — most PCs can act as access points, as can smartphones and tablets that support wireless tethering. The issue again is the setup barrier: The effort it takes to set up an ad hoc Wi-Fi network bedevils most users and takes too much time. Plus, devices inconsistently support the technology; an iPad or iPhone can join but not initiate an ad hoc Wi-Fi network.

If devices adopt Wi-Fi Direct — which unfortunately has not happened broadly in the year the standard has been available — that setup burden should be significantly reduced, and any Wi-Fi Direct device could initiate an ad hoc session. Wi-Fi has the advantage of working in a large space — with Wi-Fi Direct, all of us who present at conferences would finally be assured we could connect our devices to the projector — and of course supporting high-speed throughput.

NFC is by no means able to replace Wi-Fi Direct or even Bluetooth. Its utility is not to be the ad hoc network but to tackle two other useful tasks:

  • Act as a trigger mechanism to initiate a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi Direct connection. Just as the “bump” capability in iOS and the touch-to-sync capability in WebOS triggered an ad hoc Bluetooth connection, so too can NFC trigger an ad hoc Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection — without the need for physical contact. You can expect this capability to work very much like Mac OS X Lion’s AirDrop feature, which detects other AirDrop-enabled Macs on the network and lets users drop a file onto those devices. The recipient gets an alert asking whether to approve the file drop; otherwise, the exchange is automatic. With NFC as a trigger, a Share feature in apps could trigger a similar alert. And just as paired Bluetooth devices and remembered Wi-Fi SSID settings reconnect automatically, so could an NFC-detected known device.
  • Act as a bidirectional burst transmitter for short info. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are overkill for sharing simple information such as your name, an URL, your account number, or a text message. NFC is an efficient, easy mechanism for such nibbles of data. As an example, RFID already does that today, such as for contactless entry cards in buildings and palette trackers in warehouses. But RFID is both static and one-way: The chip holds information that a compatible device can read, but it can’t easily update that information or receive data in return. NFC can, so information exchange can be two-way, allowing apps to handle a sequence of quick exchanges to accomplish a goal, from setting up an appointment to booking a seat on a plane when checking in.

One trick will be to not limit NFC interactions to devices from the same vendor, as RIM has chosen to do with its BlackBerry OS 7-based smartphones; such a walled garden defeats the fundamental purpose of communication and collaboration. Another trick will be getting Apple on board; it’s the only major mobile vendor not in the NFC trade group, and it’s been silent about whether NFC has a place in its iOS devices.

It’s clear that NFC is a useful addition to mobile devices in ways that the focus on mobile payments is obscuring. Of course, many in IT will freak out over the security implications of easier sharing, but that’s always the case. For users and developers, short-range wireless should be as revolutionary as location information has proven to be, once it becomes more broadly implemented in devices and mobile OSes. I figure that will happen over 2012 and 2013.

This article, “Instant mobile networking: Smartphones get smarter,” was originally published at InfoWorld.com.

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