Instant mobile networking: Smartphones get smarter

Mobile devices packed with NFC, Wi-Fi Direct, and Bluetooth hint at what's coming in ad hoc communications

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Then there's Wi-Fi Direct, a recent standard meant to enable ad hoc networks using devices' Wi-Fi radios. Again, the notion of ad hoc Wi-Fi is not new -- most PCs can act as access points, as can smartphones and tablets that support wireless tethering. The issue again is the setup barrier: The effort it takes to set up an ad hoc Wi-Fi network bedevils most users and takes too much time. Plus, devices inconsistently support the technology; an iPad or iPhone can join but not initiate an ad hoc Wi-Fi network.

If devices adopt Wi-Fi Direct -- which unfortunately has not happened broadly in the year the standard has been available -- that setup burden should be significantly reduced, and any Wi-Fi Direct device could initiate an ad hoc session. Wi-Fi has the advantage of working in a large space -- with Wi-Fi Direct, all of us who present at conferences would finally be assured we could connect our devices to the projector -- and of course supporting high-speed throughput.

NFC is by no means able to replace Wi-Fi Direct or even Bluetooth. Its utility is not to be the ad hoc network but to tackle two other useful tasks:

  • Act as a trigger mechanism to initiate a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi Direct connection. Just as the "bump" capability in iOS and the touch-to-sync capability in WebOS triggered an ad hoc Bluetooth connection, so too can NFC trigger an ad hoc Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection -- without the need for physical contact. You can expect this capability to work very much like Mac OS X Lion's AirDrop feature, which detects other AirDrop-enabled Macs on the network and lets users drop a file onto those devices. The recipient gets an alert asking whether to approve the file drop; otherwise, the exchange is automatic. With NFC as a trigger, a Share feature in apps could trigger a similar alert. And just as paired Bluetooth devices and remembered Wi-Fi SSID settings reconnect automatically, so could an NFC-detected known device.
  • Act as a bidirectional burst transmitter for short info. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are overkill for sharing simple information such as your name, an URL, your account number, or a text message. NFC is an efficient, easy mechanism for such nibbles of data. As an example, RFID already does that today, such as for contactless entry cards in buildings and palette trackers in warehouses. But RFID is both static and one-way: The chip holds information that a compatible device can read, but it can't easily update that information or receive data in return. NFC can, so information exchange can be two-way, allowing apps to handle a sequence of quick exchanges to accomplish a goal, from setting up an appointment to booking a seat on a plane when checking in.

One trick will be to not limit NFC interactions to devices from the same vendor, as RIM has chosen to do with its BlackBerry OS 7-based smartphones; such a walled garden defeats the fundamental purpose of communication and collaboration. Another trick will be getting Apple on board; it's the only major mobile vendor not in the NFC trade group, and it's been silent about whether NFC has a place in its iOS devices.

It's clear that NFC is a useful addition to mobile devices in ways that the focus on mobile payments is obscuring. Of course, many in IT will freak out over the security implications of easier sharing, but that's always the case. For users and developers, short-range wireless should be as revolutionary as location information has proven to be, once it becomes more broadly implemented in devices and mobile OSes. I figure that will happen over 2012 and 2013.

This article, "Instant mobile networking: Smartphones get smarter," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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