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Bringing NFC to the Masses through Efficiency and Simplicity

Thu, 05/02/2013 - 11:26am
Neeraj Bhatia, product manager, Qualcomm Atheros

It’s no secret that Near Field Communication (NFC) is becoming a key feature in today’s flagship mobile devices. This year the industry has already seen the high-profile Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, and BlackBerry Z10 launches incorporate NFC technology. According to ABI Research, nearly 2 billion NFC-enabled devices will ship in 2017, suggesting NFC adoption won’t be slowing down anytime soon. So why isn’t NFC being rolled out in all new devices today?

Price is one reason, but this article will address the technology and design aspects product designers encounter like NFC’s impact on battery life, form factor restrictions, and the complexities of NFC standards.

In examining the entire mobile device landscape there are various cutting-edge features being crammed into thinner and lighter devices besides NFC: LTE connectivity, Wi-Fi, and high-resolution displays. The always-on, always-connected, mobile lifestyle puts a much heavier demand on a device’s battery life.

Even as consumers use their mobile devices more, they still expect them to last all day without being plugged in to the wall, which often leads to frustration and the desire to purchase a new device. This presents a challenge to product designers. How does one incorporate more features into a more compact form factor, while delivering optimal power efficiency?

Think about the number of times the average person uses their mobile device throughout the day. TIME conducted a poll that found 1 in 4 people check their mobile phones every 30 minutes, and 1 in 5 people checked every 10 minutes. With this kind of heavy usage, it’s no wonder rapidly draining battery life is such a pain point for consumers.

Tight integration under the hood is the key to conserving battery life while implementing new features. As an example, Qualcomm Atheros’ QCA1990 is a standalone SoC and contains all functions of an NFC Controller (NFCC) including RF Analog, Modem, MAC, processor subsystem, firmware, and power management. It also employs extremely low-power polling algorithms to prolong battery life.

NFC is just one of the factors contributing to power consumption, but to gain an edge in the competitive mobile device market by providing the best possible user experience, each feature that impacts battery life makes a difference. Not to mention, if the consumer is using his/her phone for mobile payments, running out of power is a pretty significant concern.

Another NFC implantation obstacle that product designers face is the size of the chip. It’s critical to select an NFC solution that takes up as little board space as possible, because OEMs continue to develop devices that are thinner and lighter. In response to this, Qualcomm Atheros created an NFC solution with an overall footprint that is half the size of the current generation of NFC chips, which allows more flexibility in device form factor. Beyond implementing NFC in mobile devices, think about all of the places and experiences a solution this small could bring to life.

Beyond the additional power consumption, another common struggle that engineers encounter is how to choose which chip to implement given all of the various NFC standards and protocols. NFC is surprisingly complex due to the aggregation of many ISO, ETSI, ECMA, and JIS standards in addition to original content generated by the NFC Forum. NFC includes multiple communication modes, operating modes, modulation and coding options; data rates, protocols, interfaces, power states, clocking schemes, tag types, data formats, and use cases.

Additionally, the solution includes separate compliance programs and performance requirements from NFC forum, EMVCo, Global Platform, Visa, MasterCard, and others. Qualcomm Atheros designed the QCA1990 SoC to be flexible enough to address other markets and platforms; for example, the chip can share a 19.2 MHz PMIC reference, use its own dedicated crystal to support a variety of frequencies, or receive its clock from another connectivity device with a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth combo chip. This kind of adaptable solution eliminates the compliance roadblock, and enables OEMs to put a product with NFC out into the market that works with its environment.

The world is moving in a direction where NFC will enable easy sharing of cards, URLs, pictures, maps, and videos. Where mobile users can discover services through tags and smart posters; where smartphones control physical access and secure login; and of course, where goods and services are paid for through a simple tap to an NFC-enabled terminal.

With power efficient, small, and adaptable NFC chips coming to the market, this further supports ABI Research’s forecast that 2 billion NFC-enabled devices will ship in 2017. Many in the industry are passionate about making NFC adoption easier, and there are now new products available to enable OEMs to push it even further as a key element to enhance the smartphone and tablet experience.

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