Put Your NFC-Enabled Smartphone to Work

As NFC proliferates on new smartphones, we're entering the era of touch-and-go business.

NFC for business
Way beyond mobile payments

If you've shopped for a smartphone lately, you've seen models that support Near Field Communication, a technology that wirelessly transfers snippets of information when you touch the phone to (or just hold it close to) another NFC device.

While the iPhone is a notable holdout (Apple uses a competing technology it calls iBeacons), NFC is currently available on several dozen Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry smartphones. IHS Technology forecasts that sales of NFC phones will reach 1.2 billion units by 2018.

Using NFC for mobile payments has been slow to catch on, but you can put an NFC phone to good business use right now in a surprising number of ways, from printing to exchanging business-card info to automating routine tasks.

NFC printers
Credit: Samsung, Brother, HP
Point and print

Need to print a document from your phone or tablet? A few new printers, such as Samsung's $400 Multifunction Xpress C460FW laser printer and Brother's $150 MFC-J870DW multifunction inkjet printer, have NFC receivers built in. Just hold the NFC phone or tablet near the receiver, and the printer establishes a Wi-Fi link for the printing data. All told, it takes about 15 seconds.

HP is taking a different approach with its $70 1200w Mobile Print Accessory. It's an NFC-enabled box about the size of a pack of cigarettes that plugs into the USB port of recent HP LaserJet or Officejet printers. Touch your NFC device to the 1200w to print over a wireless peer-to-peer connection.

File Beam and SuperBeam apps
Credit: Mohammad Abu-Garbeyyeh, LiveQoS
Exchange business card info

Forget about passing around business cards at your next power meeting -- just bring NFC-enabled phones near each other to exchange contact info, including mapping data, websites and social networking links. The NFC chips establish a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi link to move the data from one phone to the other.

While this functionality, which Google calls Android Beam, is built into Android 4.0 and later, users have complained that it doesn't always work as promised. However, apps such as File Beam can smooth the process. There are also apps like SuperBeam for phones running older versions of Android. Several BlackBerry and Windows Phone devices can also use NFC to exchange info with Android devices and each other.

Sony Xperia SmartTag
Credit: Sony
Automate repetitive tasks

Do you perform the same actions when you arrive at the office each day -- say, mute your phone, set up a Bluetooth link with your PC, and display upcoming appointments on your phone? There's a better way: When you tap your phone on an NFC tag, these sequences of actions happen automatically. You can also assign tags to pass along data like your Wi-Fi network's guest log-in info.

These small tags, such as Sony Xperia SmartTags, Samsung TecTiles or dozens of others, come in the form of stickers, labels, keychain tags and more. They're often sold in multi-packs, sometimes with different colors or icons for different tasks. You load apps on your phone to program the tags.

Trigger app, generic NFC tags, ACS tag writer
Credit: Egomotion, Tagstand, ACS
More task automation

Some NFC tags and apps are proprietary, but apps like Trigger and NFC Tasks for Android work with an array of generic NFC tags and NFC-enabled phones, letting you assign tasks to be triggered on your phone when you tap the tags. (The Trigger app can also use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi as a trigger.)

In some cases you'll need to install two apps: one to program the NFC tags and one to store the sequence of actions associated with each tag locally on your phone.

Another option for programming NFC tags is a dedicated tag writer like the ACS ACR122T ($59). It plugs into a computer's USB slot and lets you program the NFC chips from your computer.

Timesheet apps
Credit: Florian Rauscha
Track your time

All sorts of workers, from lawyers to software developers, account for their time on a minute-by-minute basis -- often by scribbling notes about what they did when. Enter Florian Rauscha's Timesheet NFC Add-on Android app, which works with the Timesheet - Time Tracker app to track billable hours, from a working lunch to an all-night coding session.

Get a generic NFC tag for each project, use NFC Add-on to program it, and tap it to the phone every time you want to start and stop the time clock for that task. The time spent on each project is tabulated in the Time Tracker app, or the data can be exported to Excel, a boon for billing and tax time.

NFC-controlled lock
Credit: Sargent
Open Sesame

Getting into your office or workroom could get faster with an NFC-enabled lock such as Sargent's SE LP10. It looks like any other commercial deadbolt but uses Assa Abloy's NFC-based Seos technology. With Sargent's Android app and an NFC phone, the lock can be quickly opened by authorized phones only.

The setup allows the building manager to control and monitor access to any door -- for instance, to grant temporary access to a contractor or permanently for an employee. The system can even latch every door in an emergency lockdown situation, and the lock has an optional physical key for times when a user's phone is forgotten or runs out of power.

Embedded Adidas and Coke NFC tags
Credit: Adidas, Coca-Cola
Engage in guerilla marketing

Your company can reach new customers or sell products by embedding NFC tags in ads, posters, flyers, store shelves and more. A phone tap takes the potential customer to a microsite with interactive product details, videos or digital coupons.

Adidas tagged its Boost sneaker to tell buyers about its attributes, Kraft has supermarket tags with online discounts near its products and Coke has put tags on soda machines in Australia to provide promotional codes for customers.

Team Rollercoaster at Isobar Create London hackathon
Credit: Team Rollercoaster
NFC, the next generation

We're only at the start of the NFC era; we'll see more of the technology's potential in the next few years. For starters, there's the ongoing hope that NFC will take off as a platform for mobile payments.

But developers are pushing the technology forward in new ways too. For instance, winners of Orange's 2013 NFC Awards developed game, anti-counterfeiting and instant-survey apps, while Team Rollercoaster (at left) won the 2012 Isobar Create London hackathon with an app that lets amusement-park visitors get discounts, pay for items and reserve a place in line for rides with their phones.

Stay tuned: More ingenious NFC uses are no doubt on the way.