For years now, people have been hoping and predicting that Apple would include NFC functionality in the iPhone. Yet year after year, it's a technology which has been oddly vacant.
Recently, Apple filed a patent that strongly suggested the inclusion of NFC in its next flagship handset. However, the company files patents all the time to try to protect ideas it has about the way something could be done. Other examples include patenting a motor that would rotate the device when it falls to try to prevent it landing on its screen.
In reality, some of these patents will make an appearance; others will remain in Apple's R&D department. Looking at the recent payment system rumours, I doubt whether it means NFC will be making an appearance in the iPhone 6.
The main thrust of the patent is centred around utilising Bluetooth and Wi-Fi as a way of making a secure connection to process a payment. Whilst NFC is mentioned, the likelihood of Apple introducing it is small. Bluetooth is a crucial reason why we doubt Apple will start supporting NFC. Ever since the iPhone 4S arrived with Bluetooth 4.0, Apple has quietly been building out how its handsets can communicate with other devices by utilising Bluetooth Low Energy technology, which hypothetically also allows wearable devices such as the Pebble smartwatch to communicate with the iPhone.
Apple expanded support for the technology with iOS 7 and the launch of AirDrop and iBeacons. Both AirDrop and iBeacons utilise BLE as a way of securely making a connection with other devices. In the case of AirDrop, a secure connection is established between two iOS devices to send or receive files using a combination of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. With iBeacons, BLE picks up signals that help detect proximity and will lead to contextual intelligence for apps.
BLE has been built into gadgets since 2011 and there are now over 200 million iOS devices capable of utilising this technology. If Apple was to introduce NFC, only a very small initial audience of its users would be able to make use of the technology. Bluetooth, however, is already being used by companies such as PayPal as a way of making mobile payments.
More than the hope of NFC, what the patent actually shows is how Apple intends to use BLE for payments. The filing reveals that Apple intends to use two wireless protocols - such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth - to complete a transaction via an encrypted process.
All signs point towards Apple moving towards this type of implementation for mobile payments. The inclusion of NFC in this patent might well be Apple thinking about how it could use NFC to set up a connection with terminals that lack Bluetooth or Wi-Fi support. But if it ever did come to Apple devices, it would be the support act - not the star.