Is NFC as a local content sharing platform viable?

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: October 10, 2012

One of the few things I remember from the Google I/O 2011 developers conference is the introduction of NFC support. The Android development team hadn't yet implemented Android Beam, but they detailed many of the planned uses for the up-and-coming technology, such as sharing content – YouTube videos, applications, Web pages and other tiny bits of information.

The rollout of Android Beam began shortly after the Ice Cream Sandwich announcement in October of last year.

The premise of the feature was awesome. I have written in the past that sharing content between multiple mobile devices should be easier than emailing or sending an MMS and, ultimately, using your provided (and likely limited) carrier data. It should be as simple as touching two phones together, and now that data is being much more closely monitored by wireless providers, it should make use of local connections such as as hoc.

But version one of Android Beam was a bit underwhelming. The sharing feature was limited to media types that were generally saved in very small chunks of data – a link to a YouTube video or Play Store app that was a few bytes. The various types of content most people would actually be interested in sharing, photos and videos, were left out.

Samsung added those to the mix with S Beam in TouchWiz Nature UX atop Ice Cream Sandwich by simply building on the existing Android Beam software. Tapping the two phones together creates a direct data connection between the two devices (ad hoc) and quickly transfers the information from one device to another. And Google has since added picture and video sharing to the mix in Android 4.1 using a very similar method. However, the penetration rate of the two latest versions of Android are still pretty low, 25.5 percent for Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean, collectively. The brunt of Android users are still on Gingerbread and can't really make use of NFC as a content sharing platform.

No less, I have a ton of friends who use newer devices that are either already running Jelly Bean or Samsung phones on Ice Cream Sandwich with S Beam. And I even found a workaround using a third-party application named File Expert that allows NFC to initiate a Bluetooth connection between two Android devices to complete a file transfer between said devices

The majority of the time, using NFC to swap pictures works like a charm. It may take an extra tap to coordinate the transfer every now and then. But once you get in the rhythm of things, transfers go quite smoothly.

The problem? Despite the majority of my friends having capable phones, we still fall back to other methods of sharing photos. I will send a picture to Dropbox and send them a shortened link via Google Voice. Or I will email the photo to them. I never stop to think, "Hey, let's use NFC!"

And I can't help but wonder if NFC as a content or file sharing platform will ever take off. It requires a context switch, a rewiring of the brain. We have been taught and have learned several means of sharing data amongst ourselves and our friends, sending files from one device to another. But as intuitive and practical as tapping two phones together may seem (not to mention the fact that it doesn't eat away at your data cap), I can never remember to do it. And I don't recall a single time I found it more simple to send a Play Store link via Beam than just spelling out the application name to my friend.

I would definitely love to see NFC take off as a payment option, and we may see that as ISIS is reportedly planning to launch a trial version of its service later this month. But how long will it be before we make the connection that tapping isn't just for paying, that sharing a picture is as simple as opening the image on your phone and tapping it to a friend's phone?

Ideally, NFC should become our go-to method for exchanging contact information, addresses, directions, pictures, videos, Web pages, PDFs, documents and literally any type of information or media that isn't several hundred megabytes of data.

Maybe as NFC for payments gains traction, we'll get in the habit of randomly touching phones to inanimate objects, exploring with our phones' NFC chip (not unlike a metal detector), to see what happens. To see if, for whatever reason, our new jacket came with an NFC tag embedded in the pocket. And maybe, just maybe, tapping to share will become more natural over time.

I love NFC and would love nothing more than to use it in more ways. The technology has an abundance of potential and promise for various use cases. Sharing pictures and videos between two mobile devices – and hopefully sometime between PCs and mobile devices – is one of the more intriguing features of near field communication. But I'm finding it terribly difficult to break old habits, especially because not everyone I know has an Android phone, NFC transfers do not work cross-platform just yet and not all of those who do use Android are running current software.

How do you feel about Android Beam and S Beam, folks? Is NFC as a content sharing platform viable? Intuitive? Natural? Will it take off as NFC becomes the norm? Or is NFC doomed to fail due to lack of cross-platform compatibility?