Apple awarded first near-field communication patent for retail transactions

by Phil Hornshaw

Apple has opted to stay out of the burgeoning technology of near-field communication with its iPhone, but a newly awarded patent suggests the company will eventually offer services similar to what Google and credit card companies are providing.

Near-field communication refers to technology that can be embedded in mobile devices – most likely smartphones – that allows them to interact with other devices when brought into close proximity of one another. One oft-used example is for marketing: Say you see a movie poster for a film that looks interesting, and the poster includes an NFC chip embedded within it. You could presumably wave your NFC-enabled smartphone near the poster and instantly bring up information about the film, including trailers, show times and ticket-purchasing options.

The place it seems NFC will really be put to work is in automated transactions, and Google is already at the forefront of the possibilities with its Google Wallet service. Announced earlier this year and tested this summer, Google Wallet allows NFC-enabled smartphones to act basically as credit cards at certain stores. When you reach the checkout counter, instead of swiping a credit card, you can wave your Android smartphone with Google Wallet near an automated terminal and instantly pay for your purchase, as well as activate any loyalty cards you might have at the store.

So far, Apple has been pretty hands-off with adopting NFC technology, most likely because it’s relatively new and untested, especially in terms of over-the-air money transactions. Apple likes to hold back on new technology until it’s ready for prime time, although in the meantime, it has been acquiring patents related to the technology, so it’s likely Apple is working on something cool to use with it.

According to Patently Apple, Apple has received a patent for NFC technology that, for the first time, is related to using NFC technology in a retail setting. Apple is already launching a “fast checkout” service in its own stores, but this patent seems to indicate using the iPhone to help users speed up their transactions in other stores.

Specifically, this patent seems to relate to “workflows” that can be executed not only by the iPhone, but by nearby devices when they’re brought into proximity with each other. That sounds quite a bit like what Google Wallet or Isis, a service being offered by several major credit card companies that are joining forces, plans to implement.

Patently Apple also reports that Apple won 30 other patents for a number of devices and technologies, including a GPS system and computer mouses.

Of course, a patent doesn’t necessarily mean that Apple has some product that’s imminent, the company patents a lot of things in case they might be useful later. But it’s doubtful that Apple intends to stay out of NFC transaction technology forever, especially given that Google is already working in the field. We’ll have to wait and see what Apple brings to the table, however.