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NFC: What's the Use?

Fri, 08/24/2012 - 12:05pm
Maisie Ramsay

I tried to find a use for Samsung's TecTiles, I really did. 

But after weeks of futzing with the NFC tags, the only practical application I found was using them to automatically set the alarm clock on my smartphone before I went to bed. And even then, it only saved me about seven seconds worth of effort. 

TecTiles are practically a case study of a solution looking for a problem. 

I ran this critique past Ryan Bidan, director of product marketing at Samsung. Instead of trying to convince me of the NFC tags' utilitarian functions, he conceded that "it's really just about this idea of people having their phone, and getting used to having it interact with the physical world."

"As it relates to usability and practicality, it's a work in progress," he said.

TecTiles are NFC tags that can be affixed to various objects and then programmed to perform a certain function. The app that manages the stickers offers assorted functions that control phone settings, place phone calls, send pre-set text messages, share contact information and check in to Foursquare or Facebook, among other capabilities. TecTiles work with an assortment of Samsung Android smartphones with NFC, including the Galaxy S III.

For instance, a business could place one of the NFC stickers on a store counter, allowing customers with compatible phones to check in to Foursquare simply by placing their phone over the tag.

When I first spoke with Samsung about its TecTiles shortly after their launch in June, product executive Nick DiCarlo told me the stickers were aimed at familiarizing consumers with the act of using their smartphone to interact with NFC tags. A laudable goal, for sure, especially given operators’ designs on NFC-based mobile payments. 

The problem is that the TecTiles don’t have much to offer in the way of convenience. Most of functions they replace – launching apps, checking in to social media sites, changing phone settings – take just seconds to perform normally, so there’s not really a compelling reason to find a whole new way to do them. 

Sure, I could program a sticker to automatically send my fiancé a message that I’m home from work. But it takes just a couple seconds to text “I’m home,” so why bother? Yes, being able to set my phone’s alarm clock just by placing it on the nightstand was nice, but mainly because I’m extraordinarily lazy at bedtime. 

If my experience was any indication, the average consumer is going to struggle to come up with reasons to use TecTiles, especially reasons that justify their $3-per sticker price. The industry might want to look for additional ways to spread the word about NFC. 

Bidan said Samsung is looking at ways to increase TecTiles utilitarian value and will update its Android app to reflect feedback from users. He declined to provide sales numbers for the tags.

"We took the first path, now we're letting the community drive what those use cases will look like," Bidan said. Samsung has already refined the TecTile app for AT&T subscribers with a new user interface, simplified language and the ability to change multiple phone settings simultaneously, and the update is slated to roll out to additional operators in November. 

Given that NFC is the core technology behind operator's mobile payment schemes and mobile payments are seen as a potentially huge growth opportunity for the industry, just how worried should we be that NFC stickers aren't exactly the hottest new thing in mobile accessories? Not very. 

Unlike the mobile wallet, which offers immediate value to the consumer in the form of convenience and instant discounts, TecTiles are more of a novelty. They provide a new way to do things that consumers were already accomplishing just fine without the stickers. Once I send the Galaxy S III and leftover TecTiles back to Samsung, their absence won't leave a void in my life. 

But if I had been using that phone as my mobile wallet, especially one that automatically handled all my rewards programs, you bet I'd want to keep it around.

Consumers don’t tend to adopt technology if it lacks tangible value, whether that’s in the form of convenience or entertainment. Think back to the early days of wireless: people bought hideously expensive phones the size of bricks because the value of mobile technology was so compelling. Once those phones shrunk to candy-bar size, even grandma got on board.

If operators are lucky, that's what will happen with NFC-based mobile payments. TecTiles just might not be the way we get consumers comfortable with NFC.

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