Android Sharpens Its NFC Chops With Gingerbread Bump

Google has added new near-field communications (NFC) capabilities to Android 2.3, aka “Gingerbread,” via a small feature release, version 2.3.3.

NFC lets consumers use their mobile devices make purchases and exchange data with other devices, among other things.

The new features include a comprehensive NFC read/write API that lets apps read and write to most standard NFC tags in use today. It also has support for limited peer-to-peer connection with other NFC devices.

Google’s tweak comes amidst rumors about Apple planning to include NFC support in the forthcoming iPhone 5.

“The NFC Forum is pleased that several handset makers are making commitments to NFC technology,” Debbie Arnold, spokesperson for the Forum, told LinuxInsider.

About Android 2.3.3

Developers can download Android 2.3.3 as a component for the Android software development kit (SDK) using the Android SDK Manager, Google said. The platform includes an Android library, a system image and emulator skins, among other things.

Android 2.3.3 provides new APIs that give apps read and write access to more standard NFC technologies including NFC-A, NFC-B, NFC-F, NFC-V and ISO-DEP.

Android 2.3.3 also has a limited peer-to-peer communication protocol and API that Android’s Foreground Activities feature can use to register an NDEF message that will get pushed to other NFC devices when they connect.

NDEF, or the NFC Data Exchange Format, is a common data format defined by the NFC Forum. It’s conceptually similar to MIME, being a dense binary format of “records” with each record being able to hold a different type of object. NDEF can store and transport various kinds of items ranging from any MIME_typed object to ultra-short RTD documents such as URLs.

Android 2.3.3 also has advanced tag dispatching, which gives apps more control over how and when they are launched when an NFC tag is discovered. The one-step process used in Android 2.3 has been replaced with a four-step process that lets foreground applications take control of a tag event before it’s passed to any other applications.

Further, Android 2.3.3 also adds platform and API support for Bluetooth nonsecure socket connections. This lets apps communicate with simple devices that may not offer a UI for authentication.

Apple and NFC

There are rumors that Apple’s planning to include NFC capability in the iPhone 5.

These might have been triggered by Cupertino’s recent hiring of some NFC experts.

Meanwhile, DeviceFidelity has reportedly announced plans to demonstrate a version of its In2Pay solution at the Mobile World Congress next week that can give the iPhone 4 NFC capabilities. The Congress will be held in Barcelona, Spain.

DeviceFidelity and Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

Playing in a Mixed-Up Market

The field of mobile payments, which includes NFC, is a highly active one. Apart from NFC, there’s ISIS, a consortium formed by AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile to tackle the mobile payments market in the United States. Meanwhile, MasterCard and Visa have launched their own mobile payment programs, as has the Starbucks chain.

That has raised concern about the fragmentation of the market; however, those worries are not always warranted, the NFC Forum’s Arnold said.

“Mobile payments in the U.S. may have different approaches, but all meet common payment standards,” Arnold pointed out. “NFC standards have been developed by some of the world’s leading companies and have been established so that companies can build to those standards.”

Further, the NFC Forum has a certification program that “goes a step further to support interoperability,” Arnold stated.

Worldwide shipments of cellphones with built-in NFC capability will quadruple by 2014, from the roughly 52 million units chalked up in 2010 to just over 220 million units, IHS iSuppli director Jagdish Rebello predicts.

Within the next 18 months, ISIS members will offer NFC-enabled cellphones, Rebello forecast.

However, Gartner’s Sandy Shen suggested that NFC won’t become mainstream before 2015.

The Next Apple-Google Battlefield?

Could NFC be the next battlefield between Apple and Google?

“This year there’s real heightened aggression and white-hot competition among these companies, but I don’t think there’s going to be just any one battleground between them,” Laura DiDio, principal at ITIC, told LinuxInsider. “I think it’s going to one of the battlegrounds.”

However, Apple may clobber Android handily in the mobile payments arena, Victoria Fodale, a senior analyst at ABI Research, contended.

“Apple already has a back-end payment system in place with iTunes, and Google will have a long way to go to catch up,” Fodale told LinuxInsider.

Google did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

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