Image: Parrot NFC-enabled, wireless music speakers
Using Near Field Communication technology, Parrot's Party Black Edition wireless speakers can play music sent from Nokia's new NFC-enabled phone, the 6212 Classic. Both the phone and the speakers are being launched first in Europe. NFC-enabled phones may be released in the U.S. next year.
updated 4/23/2008 8:57:47 AM ET 2008-04-23T12:57:47

When Nokia introduced its 6612 Classic phone to European and Asian markets last week, there was fanfare over the device that doesn’t have the glitz of an iPhone or look much different than most mobiles.

What it does have is NFC, Near Field Communication, a technology that lets users quickly make small payments of a few dollars with a wave or tap of the phone, as well as buy transit tickets the same way.

Those important commercial aspects have led to testing of NFC-enabled phones in the U.S. by banks, credit card companies and public transportation agencies.

But what may give NFC the extra push it needs to be on phones in the United States is its “peer-to-peer” ability to let cell users share music and photos quickly and easily.

“Consumers don’t want technology; they want simplicity. And what NFC is about is you point at something — and it works,” said Gerhard Romen, vice chairman of The NFC Forum, an international group made up of representatives from phone manufacturers, financial institutions and software and hardware developers.

Image: Nokia 6212 Classic
Nokia's 6212 Classic phone, which uses NFC technology, is first being launched in Europe.
“If people want to interact with their environment, they either point or touch for something they want. Using NFC technology supports that behavior,” Romen said.

Bluetooth is the main technology used by many cell phone owners to connect their phones wirelessly to hands-free headsets. It’s also used with wireless speakers and digital photo frames.

But using Bluetooth initially requires a cumbersome and sometimes confusing “pairing” process that requires going through several steps on devices’ menus and entering codes. Improvements are coming, but Bluetooth, which has a 33-foot range, is not yet plug-and-play.

NFC, which works in conjunction with Bluetooth, has a much shorter range, up to 4 inches.

For purposes of peer-to-peer sharing between two NFC-enabled devices, such as phones, all that’s required is essentially a wave or tap for exchanging digital data.

“The thing that is very exciting about this is the sharing of content back and forth,” said Jeremy Belostock, head of NFC for Nokia.

“We think that this sharing is sort of a revolution in the way that people will interact going forward.”

NFC-enabled speakers due in summer
This summer, Parrot, best known for its wireless and hands-free car kit products, is launching an NFC-enabled wireless speaker set, the Parrot Party Black Edition, that will work with Nokia’s new phone, as well as with Bluetooth-enabled devices.

With a tap of the phone to the 6-watt speakers, music can be sent to the speakers to play. The speakers will retail in Europe for the U.S. equivalent of $139.

“If you’re using a Bluetooth cell phone and want to pair it with a Bluetooth headphone or hands-free car kit, it’s a multi-step process that you go through, anywhere from five to eight or nine steps, depending on the make and model of your cell phone,” said Mike Hedge of Parrot.

“With NFC technology, all you do is lightly touch or tap the phone with the product you’re trying to pair with, and it pairs automatically,” he said.

“It eliminates a lot of steps, and makes the process a whole lot easier. The whole point of wireless devices is ease, simplicity and freedom from wires.”

Also on the drawing board from Parrot: an NFC-enabled digital photo frame that will work in tandem with the Nokia phone, so that photos taken with the phone’s camera can be sent with a wave or tap to the digital photo frame for display.

“The camera phone has become so popular, with that little, tiny screen where people are trying to look and share photos with each other,” said Hedge. “And digital frames have taken off in popularity. With NFC, people will be able to pair the two easily in one step and transfer photos wirelessly.

“We all know that consumers want everything as simple as possible, and NFC will make that happen.”

2009 rollout possible for U.S.
NFC technology was introduced in 2003. In the last few years in the United States, NFC has been widely tested in cities around the country using phones issued by metropolitan transit agencies, banks and companies like 7-Eleven.

In San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transit System is just finishing a four-month program monitoring 230 commuters who are using Samsung NFC-enabled phones for ticketing at turnstiles.

Similar trials are taking place in Europe. In London last year, there was great success with a “contactless” NFC program for mass transit, said Jonathan Collins, ABI Research’s principal analyst for NFC, who is based in London.

Right now, experts agree that the soonest NFC will be available commercially in the U.S. is next year.

Verizon Wireless, like some other major carriers, is considering carrying phones with NFC technology. Company spokeswoman Brenda Raney said that 2009 “sounds reasonable” for a rollout, “but it’s premature for us to say we have a specific service in a specific time frame.

“It’s new technology,” she said. “So what you have to do is your due diligence to make sure you can offer this product in a manner to make it cost-effective, not only for the customer, but for the business.”

Collins said adding NFC chips to phones could cost between $10 and $20 per unit.

The technology’s cost, though, is not as much of an issue as how revenues from its use should be split between commercial institutions, such as banks and credit card companies, and phone operators, he said.

“It’s taken some time for those players to come together to decide the way those revenue streams will be shared between them.

“The overwhelming feedback is that people like using it, people like the simplicity it brings to a phone and the additional functions it allows,” said Collins.

And, he said, “the peer-to-peer applications are great.”

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