Image: Nexus S phone
Google
Google's Nexus S phone can act as both an NFC reader and target. Apple, Nokia and RIM, which makes BlackBerrys, are expected to come out with NFC-enabled phones this year.
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updated 4/25/2011 8:22:13 PM ET 2011-04-26T00:22:13

For the last few years, cell phone innovation has been all about long-range speed. 3G brought us mobile Internet and video calling, and the creeping emergence of 4G will eventually result in download and upload speeds that are faster than cable and DSL. The truth is, while both 3G and 4G are great, they're only really useful for surfing. Browsing the Web from your smartphone is just the tip of the omnipresent mobile computing iceberg.

Near field communication
Near field communication (NFC) is a wireless technology that allows for very short range communication between just two devices. The general idea of NFC is that you have a target, which is usually an inanimate object of some kind, like a library book or credit card, and a reader, which reads data from the target. Targets don't require power — they don't need batteries — which is why they can be embedded in inanimate objects. The target, believe it or not, gets its power from a nearby reader; it extracts power from the wireless signal, "turns on," and then sends data back to the reader.

In essence, NFC is all about scanning objects with a reader. It's very similar to scanning barcodes, but infinitely more flexible and secure.

NFC with smartphones
Over the last few years, near field communication (NFC) has been spreading like wildfire in almost every domain — every domain except consumer electronics. You might have a credit card with an NFC chip, and new passports also contain NFC technology. Now, however, with the arrival of the Nexus S smartphone, which can act as both an NFC reader and target, things are about to get rather exciting indeed.

Now, while the imminent onslaught of other phones and tablets with NFC capabilities is likely, it's worth noting that the Nexus S is the only currently available smartphone in the United States and Europe with NFC capabilities. The iPhone 5, which is expected out later this year, is rumored to contain NFC technology, and both Nokia and BlackBerry will bring out NFC-enabled phones before the end of 2011.

Mobile payments
Just for a moment, think about how many purchases you make in a single day, either with cash or card. Train tickets. Car parking tickets. Breakfast. Coffee. Lunch. Candy from a vending machine. Dinner. Imagine if you had the option of never using a credit card ever again — imagine if you could do away with cash and the banal counting of change.

Well, that's what NFC technology can offer. Your smartphone can become your credit card; your smartphone can replace your cash. Instead of sliding in your card and keying in your PIN, you can simply hold your phone near a reader. With NFC readers in every shop, ticket machine, and vending machine, you would never carry money ever again — you would simply carry your smartphone.

There's more!
It gets better. Not only can NFC-enabled smartphones replace money, but they can also replace almost every piece of paper. Think about it — you buy your train ticket with your smartphone, but instead of printing a ticket, your phone becomes the ticket; simply swipe your phone over the NFC reader when you get to the turnstile! The same goes for any other significant piece of paper: concert or airline tickets, police tickets, doctor's prescriptions, school reports... In theory, every single one can be replaced with smartphones and NFC.

Become an early adopter
If you want to try out near field communication payments, your options are rather limited. In the United States, Google is working with MasterCard and Citigroup to bring NFC payments to New York and San Francisco, but that's about it. Starbucks, with a stroke of retro genius, recently rolled out mobile payments — but using barcodes, rather than NFC.

In the United Kingdom, Orange, Barclaycard, and MasterCard are planning a wide-scale deployment of NFC payment systems for the second half of 2011.

Still, don't be disheartened: Take a look at a list of every NFC-related trial currently being conducted. NFC has caught the attention of smartphone makers, mobile carriers, banks, and credit card companies. It's not a question of if NFC payments will replace cards and coins — it's simply a matter of when.

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