Apple iOS 11 Supports Reading NFC Tags for iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 with Core NFC API

UPDATE Sept 12th, 2017: Read the new post Finally Read NFC Tags with an iPhone App on iOS 11

Apple has just announced at WWDC 2017 that iOS 11 will have support for reading NFC tags and NDEF messages. This means that all iPhone 7 and newer will be able to read NFC tags just like Android. While the iOS NFC API docs (Core NFC) are live on the Apple developer site, they appear to be at an early stage and there are still some questions. We’ll cover these questions and answers as they come in. For context, you should read up on other previous posts about Apple and NFC over the past couple years. If you have any questions, please either contact us or via Twitter @gototags.

Download the GoToTags iPhone App to read NFC tags and scan barcodes!

Is this for real?

Yes, it’s for real. It’s the moment the NFC industry has been waiting for.

What are the implications of this?

Huge, a fundamental change in how we interact with physical items and their digital counterparts. NFC is now a horizontal technology like the camera, WiFi and Bluetooth. Previously NFC had success but only in vertical markets such as asset tracking, security, gaming and closed event systems. Now going forward, most people will have an NFC reader available in their pocket to interact with NFC tags. Think about how the camera changed things…

What new use cases will be supported?

You will see a significant increase in consumer focused uses cases. This includes out-of-home marketing, smart product labels and packaging, interactive event experiences, rich gaming, product authentication and information and so many before. This is where NFC breaks away from its RFID roots. UHF RFID and NFC before the iPhone supported NFC tags was relegated to closed loop deployments in which the device was controlled via an entity “use this phone to do your job”. Now application developers and services providers can start to count on the consumer already having a device (phone) which can read NFC tags; in the same way they expect the phone to have a camera/GPS/WiFi. What you will see is things in the physical world now have NFC tags in them to link to its digital counterpart. We call this the Connected Things segment of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Where is the NFC Core developer documentation?

It’s here.

What models of the iPhone will be able to read NFC tags?

The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, as well as the upcoming iPhone 8 will be able to read NFC tags. Technically the iPhone 6+ has an NFC controller in it to support Apple Pay and will receive iOS 11. However they will not support NFC tag reading at this time. The iPhone 7 did change some of the NFC hardware, so it’s possible that Apple thought this upgraded hardware a requirement for the best NFC tag reading experience.

How many iPhones will now be able to read NFC tags?

By the end of 2017, I’d guess 250M+. Many consumers have been waiting for the upcoming iPhone 8 to upgrade. Think about this; it’s unprecedented in technology. Never before has a market increased by so much is such a little time. This is because Apple has been selling this hardware capability for over a year now, and it’s just a software update to enable.

When will this be available?

The iOS 11 beta is available for download now. The public release will be available shortly after the September 12th 2017 event, likely along with the iPhone 8.

What NFC functions are available?

Only reading NFC tags is supported in iOS 11, not writing NFC tags or card emulation.

Why just support reading NFC tags and not writing?

In our experience, regular consumers just don’t encode NFC tags. Only geeks (like us) and a few verticals support it. In 99% of projects we have worked on (millions of NFC tags), the tags are pre-encoded before delivery to the consumer. The implication of this is that NFC tags must be NDEF encoded in order to be read by an iPhone. This is fine; the GoToTags Store offers an NFC tag encoding service and NFC Encoder software and hardware for those that want to encode NFC tags themselves.

Is an app required or is there native support for handling of specific NDEF records?

An app is required to read NFC tags on the iPhone. This is different than Android which has native functionality in the operating system that when it encounters certain types NDEF records, it will perform their natural action on the phone. For example, a website record will open the url in the browser. This is likely something Apple will change in the future to improve the user experience. For now, you will need to use the GoToTags iPhone App.

Does it support NDEF?

Yes, but not completely. There is base level support for NDEF messages and records, but no typed classes for NDEF record (uri, text, contact, mime…). It’s easy to write those record subclasses so this isn’t concerning. GoToTags has a free iPhone app, and if there are any missing gaps in the SDK we will fill those in. We already have a complete NFC/NDEF SDK for .NET Windows so it’s easy for us.

Which NFC chip types are supported?

NFC types 1 – 5 are supported; which is all of them. This includes Mifare Ultralight, the NXP NTAG series and the longer range SLI series. If you aren’t sure which to use for your project, contact us and we can help.

Is it possible to read the NFC chip’s UID?

No, iOS 11 will not be able to read the NFC chip’s UID. This has some implications as the UID is used for functionality such as product authentication, anti-cloning and counterfeiting. Several projects did not take our advice and have just used the UID; time to rethink that. As a simple solution, our Encoder software can encode the UID in an NDEF record, although there really are better encoding strategies. See our help site for more details.

Why did Apple release an NFC API now?

It’s about time! Android has had an NFC SDK since 2010 and Apple Pay is successful. See our other posts about Apple and NFC. In general I think Apple finally saw NFC for what it is, a base-level technology that is a required hardware component in a modern smartphone in 2017. Everyone always asked “How will Apple make money off NFC?”. Wrong question, it’s akin to asking “How will Apple make money from the camera?”. Plus there are the ~2% transaction fees from Apple Pay.

How does this affect ApplePay?

It will not affect Apple Pay at all. While NFC is used as the mode of communication for Apple Pay, VAS (Passbook) and now reading NFC tags; the secure element used for ApplePay and VAS is not used when reading and writing NFC tags.

Will the Apple Watch also support reading NFC tags?

Yes, the Apple Watch will also be able to read NDEF records from NFC tags. We expected it to as it would make for an interesting user experience. Apple has already been driving their customers to use NFC on the Apple Watch for payments via Apple Pay, so this is a natural extension to that.

Will macOS support NFC?

There was no mention of this. macOS does support PC/SC so it is possible to build an NFC SDK and app, but you would be starting from a very low level.

How many calls/emails/texts did I have about this on the day it was announced?

Over 50, from partners, customers, friends, family, coworkers, investors, suppliers, competitors and press; along with record website traffic.

What’s next?

Game on. If you don’t already have an NFC strategy, now is the time to get your team together and figure out what NFC means to you. We can help you. We have worked on over 20,000 projects; some being very small and others are with Fortune 100 customers that we’ve been working on for 2+ years. Contact us and we’ll respond quickly.