Will Apple Fix Core NFC in iOS 12 for the iPhone?

It’s been a year now since Apple added support for reading NFC tags with an iPhone in iOS 11 and since then we have seen an increased demand for NFC tags, and the Connected Things industry in general. Core NFC, Apple’s NFC SDK on iOS, still has several limitations and is deficient compared with Google’s Android NFC SDK. With Apple’s annual WWDC event on June 4th, 2018 we will see what Apple has in store for iOS 12, and what improvements there will be for NFC. We have written about Apple’s support for NFC in the past, and how it has affected the adoption of Connected Things. If you haven’t read through our related posts, now might be a good time.

Before last September, Connected Things had always been waiting for Apple to allow for reading NFC tags on the iPhone. As the dominant manufacturer of consumer phones, the iPhone has always set the standard for what it meant to be a modern smart phone. Without support for reading NFC tags, businesses didn’t feel comfortable deploying millions of NFC tags into the market, knowing that roughly 50% of consumers would not be able to interact with them.

Everything changed in September 2017, with iOS 11 and the iPhone 8 with the addition of Core NFC. Core NFC is the SDK for iPhone that allows apps to access the NFC controller in the phone. Now it is possible to develop an iPhone app to read NFC tags and, subsequently perform actions. GoToTags has an iPhone app, and companies like Nike and MLB have added NFC functionality into their apps to allow for interesting physical world interactions. Now, a year later the adoption of NFC and Connected Things has taken off. Companies that had only been previously experimenting with NFC are now deploying real projects to the market. Companies are seeing the value of connecting their physical products to digital experiences, and they are doing this through smart labeling, smart packaging and sometimes embedding NFC directly into the product itself. GoToTags has seen record breaking sales of NFC products and an immediate and significant interest in Connected Things by businesses worldwide.

Companies are becoming more comfortable with Connected Things, and they are looking to scale up and increase the value of their NFC tag deployments. One key area to focus on is making the consumer interaction experience as easy and natural as possible. There are some limitations in iOS 11 that make the experience of using NFC on the iPhone a bit difficult. In many ways NFC on iOS 11 feels incomplete; as if Apple developers ran out of time and had to ship only what had been implemented at that point.

These are the things we would like for Apple to fix in iOS 12:

Safari, the native iOS web browser should be able to read NFC tags and if there is an NDEF URL on the NFC tag, it should automatically open that URL in a web browser. Currently in iOS 11, an app is required to read NFC tags, in order to do this; its why we had to make our GoToTags iPhone app. Having to download a separate app to interact with NFC tags is a poor user experience and generally limits the user adoption of NFC. There already is an obvious native app on the iPhone that should handle NDEF URLs, Safari. We’d expect that the other web browser apps, Google’s Chrome and Firefox would also implement this. This is how it works on Android; it just makes sense that it would work this way on iOS.

Reading an NFC tag on iOS should not require the user to perform an explicit function in the app. When the NFC tag is interacted with, it should just perform the desired action without user action. Why? Because the user has already implicitly indicated they want to read the NFC tag by the fact they physically touched their phone to the NFC tag. NFC is very short range (1”), so it’s highly unlikely anyone accidentally reads a tag with their phone. Why make the user go through this extra step? The whole point of NFC, and what Apple prides itself on, is to make the experience of using the phone easier for consumers.

Core NFC should allow access to read the NFC chip’s UID. The ability to read the UID is a perquisite for implementing an anti-counterfeiting solution. Many GoToTags customers had been using the NFC UID as an identifier in their systems; this is very common for physical presence security systems, asset tracking and other ID-based systems (non-URL based). Using NFC tags to be able to securely authenticate and track products is a key value proposition for NFC; something that barcode and QR codes cannot offer. There is no valid reason to not allow access to the NFC chip’s UID. There is significant business value in being able to read the NFC chip’s UID.

There are additional smaller issues with NFC on iOS 11; the lack of an ability to write NFC tags, support for only NDEF… but in our extensive experience, we do not see these as roadblocks to full adoption of Connected Things. There are only three main things for Apple to fix in iOS 12 to allow for a much better user experience for the consumer and value for the brands owners. Once these are implemented, NFC on the iPhone will be unlocked, and the full realization of Connected Things, smart labels and smart packaging will be finally possible. GoToTags is working with commercial printing and packaging companies to bring this to reality, at very large scales. Given WWDC is only a month away, if you haven’t started thinking about what Connected Things means to your business, contact us to get started.