For the financial and retail industries, mobile is becoming a significant part of the strategy for delivering valuable content and services to customers. Two technologies in particular are available on many of todays smartphones and are being looked at to enhance consumer experience: Near Field Communications (NFC) and Bluetooth low energy (BLE).
BLE and NFC both provide wireless communication capabilities that can be useful for mobile marketing and mobile commerce applications. While these technologies are often considered similar due to their ability to create a more productive and effective consumer experience in the retail environment, they transmit information in different ways and are suited to different use cases.
One of the differences between BLE and NFC is how information is transferred to the mobile device. NFCuses radio frequencies at close proximity, within four centimeters, and requires the consumer to tap their mobile device to communicate with another NFC devicei.e., the consumer would pull the information desired. This provides customers with the option to download advertising or product information they deem relevant. The close proximity also allows consumers to securely send information such as payment details to NFC-enabled point-of-sale (POS) terminals.
In contrast, BLE is now being used to broadcast data from a BLE beacon to a Bluetooth 4.0-enabled device from a long rangeup to 200 feet depending on the device and application. The transmission of information through BLE is considered a push of information because it automatically sends to BLE-enabled devices. Consumers can opt-in to these push notifications to receive coupons and product details that are suited to them based on their shopping habits.
BLE is particularly useful in situations where restaurants, venues and retail locations want to push information to the customers mobile device. For example, suppose a couple with two young children decides to go out to dinner at a local restaurant. The wife notices that there is an app for the restaurant in the app store, downloads it and opts-in to push notifications. As the family enters the parking lot, the app uses BLE to push a welcome message to the wifes phone, asking if she is having dinner and if so, how many are in her party. The wife responds, requesting that her family be placed on the wait list. As the family enters the restaurant, the app again uses beacon technology to prompt responses, determining whether they would like to take part in the restaurants streamlined ordering and payment service. Knowing that children have limits, she agrees, and within a few minutes the app signals that their table is ready and that they are to proceed to the hostess station.
As they walk to the table, the app sends a description of that evenings specials. After placing their drink orders, the wife uses the app to request extra napkins. The waiter brings the napkins along with their drinks. While they are eating, a coupon for ice cream is sent to her phone, which she uses to order ice cream for her children. While the children are finishing their treat, the wife uses the app to request the check. When the waiter brings the check, she pays with her phone, using the app to add a generous tip and inputs her email address for the receipt.
By opting-in through the restaurants app, the wife allows the BLE beacons to push information that is assumed to be relevant based on her previous dining experiences and her close proximity to the restaurant.
On the other hand, the deliberate action of using NFC to pull information gives the consumer the ability to decide when and where they will receive information rather than it being predetermined by previous purchases or current location, which can occasionally lead to poorly timed notifications.
For example, a consumer observes an NFC tag fastened to a shelf or poster that contains a product they wish to learn about. They place their NFC-enabled device within proximity of the NFC tag, activating the tag through radio waves. The tag is then able to transmit its preprogrammed contents (such as a coupon, product ingredients, links to related information such as recipes or targeted brand promotions) to the consumers device. The desired information is then visible to the consumer.
In this situation, the use of NFC allowed the consumer to decide what information they wanted at that moment without having to opt-in ahead of time.
Mobile payments is another area where financial stakeholders are looking at NFC and BLE. NFC features are a better fit for payments. Heres why.
In order to provide payment services, BLE requires the addition of a new POS acceptance infrastructure. Plus, the security of implementation must be considered. While a variety of methodologies are available to tailor security for BLE, the long-distance pairing nature of the technology leaves it susceptible to the tracking of individuals, eavesdropping on transactions, spoofing of beacons and monitoring of behavior.
When NFC with a secure element is used for payment, the transaction uses NFC card emulation mode and standard payments application security including dynamic cryptograms and security codes that leverage an already existing contactless payment infrastructure. This makes NFC more secure and more appropriate for payments.
In the end, it isnt really BLE vs. NFC. Each has its best use cases and the two can be used together in a complementary way. For example, BLE can supply value-added services such as offers and discounts to a consumers NFC-enabled phone, and then the consumer can use NFC to redeem that offer that a retail contactless POS. We expect both BLE and NFC to enable new applications that enhance the way consumers interact and transact with the world around them.
Randy Vanderhoof has been the executive director of the Smart Card Alliance since 2002. The alliance recently issued a white paper on BLE and NFC.