Apple Expands NFC on iPhone in iOS 13

NFC active read and write on iOS devices would allow the Flex Manager solution to be 100% effective on the iOS platform and increase the opportunity for gathering data on the ground. This is an eagerly awaited announcement and our technical team are already building the required structure to adopt this as soon as possible from the release date…. watch this space! It’s June again which means another Apple WWDC event, where they announce changes to their software products. Over the last several years Apple has been increasing NFC functionality in the iPhone. We have blogged about this several times in the past, as Apple’s adoption of NFC has been instrumental to the awareness and growth of NFC and Connected Things. Apple started with support for NFC-based payments for Apple Pay, and each year the functionality expanded including recent support for reading NFC tags without an app. This year Apple is again expanding NFC capability with iOS 13. The details of this will come out throughout this week as the WWDC sessions unfold; the primary session is on Friday. We will update this post with the latest information, so check back later in the week. Previously NFC on the iPhone had several restrictions:
  • Only support for reading NFC tags, not writing
  • Only support for reading NDEF formatted data
  • No access to the NFC chip UID
  • An app was required to use NFC tags on iPhone models earlier than XS and XR
  • NFC tag reading only available on iPhone 7 models and newer
  • No access to specific NFC chip protocols; can’s directly issue APDU commands
  • No access to other NFC modes; peer-peer, tag emulation
  • No access to special NFC chip features; locking, mirroring, counters, auth…
These restrictions had several negative effects on the usage of NFC with the iPhone; which constrained the growth of Connected Things. Here’s why:
  • Requiring users to download an app goes against one of the core premises of Connected Things; that it is easier to use your phone as a magic wand that to type into search
  • Without access to the UID, it is more difficult and expensive to implement a secure tag to be used for anti-counterfeiting
  • No ability to interact with transportation, ticketing, identification systems (these systems tend to not use NDEF)
  • General awareness; by limiting NFC functionality to newer iPhone models it has left a significant set of consumers without access to the technology
As Apple began to add more NFC functionality to the iPhone, the NFC and Connected Things market has seen accelerated growth in tandem. Apple is expanding NFC functionality even more with iOS 13. In the keynote two people were shown exchanging music via NFC by touching their phones together. Google and Samsung showcased this years ago with Android Beam; something that has recently been removed and we lauded. Funny it’s now back with Apple. Also, the attendee credentials to WWDC used NFC for tickets on the iPhone; previous years a barcode was used. This shows Apple’s commitment to using NFC across their product ecosystem as a baseline technology. Here is what we know Apple is adding to iOS 13 for NFC. We will update this as information comes in.
  • Adding support for writing NDEF messages. This is sort of interesting, although most consumers do not write their own tags. This is implemented with the NFCNDEFTag protocol, which looks to be a generic protocol for handling all NDEF functionality across the different tag types.
  • Ability to permanently lock an NFC tag that has been encoded with an NDEF message; this is handled with a writeLock() function.
  • Direct access to issue NFC commands for the protocols FeliCaISO 15693 (SLI-X), ISO 7816 (Type 2, NTAG…) and Mifare (Ultralight, Plus, DESFire). For all practical purposes this is the full range of NFC protocols for NFC tags deployed today. This gives direct access to the commands on the NFC chips for more advanced functionality.
  • Access to the NFC chip UID is now possible, although a bit clunky.  If you are just reading NDEF then you can use the NFCNDEFTag protocol, but if you want the UID you must you a specific chip protocol. Note they call it a “unique hardware identifier of the tag”.
  • All other NFC chip special features are now available (mirroring, counters, auth…); again, this is handled via issuing direct commands to the NFC chip based on protocol.
  • Additional enhancements to Apple Pay for NFC; we know the new Apple Card includes and NFC tag in the box (read more)
  • Ability to launch a Shortcut via an NFC tag; shortcuts is also part of iOS now and not a separate app. This is very interesting as its the basis for the iPhone not needing an app to read an NFC tag. It could also be the way that earlier models of the iPhone get upgraded to also not need an app. (read more)
  • Additional support for pairing via NFC via peer-peer. The demo in the keynote showed transferring movies and music from two phone touching. Sound familiar? Cough, cough.. Android Beam.
Here is what we know is not supported and/or not being added:
  • Other modes of NFC including host card emulation (HCE) are not supported. This is not too surprising as it would allow apps to create payment related services which potentially would compete with Apple Pay.
  • No direct access to the NFC secure element. This will never happen.
There are still many open questions with this and in many ways the devil is in the details.
  • Will Apple add support for features in previous models of the iPhone or will they only be limited to modern or upcoming devices? There are still plenty of iPhone 6, 7 and 8 models in the world.
  • What functionality will be native and what functionality will require a 3rd party app? The more native NFC functionality is, the easier it will be for consumers which will spur adoption.
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