Apple wants to use the technology behind wireless payments to let you open your door

Payments were just the beginning.
Payments were just the beginning.
Image: Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters
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Apple plans to open up the technology it uses for wireless payments so that it can be applied to other applications. In fact, at the company’s Cupertino, California campus, employees can already swipe into the office using their iPhones to unlock doors, reports The Information (paywall). Apple is expected to announce the development next month.

The technology is known as near-field communication (NFC), a method of transferring data wirelessly between nearby devices without an internet connection. NFC chips in iPhones (and billions of other handsets) can securely transmit all kinds of information, ranging from complex things like financial transactions and identity checks to small bits of data that trigger things like unlocking doors and drawers.

Apple’s move probably means that NFC adoption rates will accelerate. In the past, when the company has made an effort to change standards (such as dropping CD drives from its laptops beginning in 2009), the industry tended to follow.

ApplePay launched in 2014, but with middling success. Just 13% of iPhone users had activated the service as of last year. But Apple has since updated its iOS operating system to let app developers access phones’ NFC chip for location-based functions. This “Core NFC” framework lays the groundwork for myriad applications. A phone user could wave their device in front anything with a tag—merchandise, store shelf, or poster, say—and receive information, real-time coupons, advertising, or complete a transaction. One hint of what’s in store is that the Apple Watch can already talk to compatible gym equipment outfitted with NFC. The next step, which the Information reports is expected to come next month, is to make changes to the chip that will enable iPhones to use NFC to unlock smart locks.

This has been in the works for years. As far back as 2014, analysts predicted the iPhone 6’s NFC chips would eventually be used for far more than payments. They posited that the chips could perform a range of functions, from verifying identities to acting as “a remote control for your home.” NFC needs widespread, near-simultaneous adoption by customers and businesses, as well as the deployment of terminals capable of reading the chip. So its only early successes have been in tightly controlled environments, such as public transit systems, and have struggled to gain broader traction.

Now it’s moving into the mainstream. Payment processors standardized their NFC equipment, and the rest of the technology ecosystem began to support it. The turning point for NFC came as more phone makers began integrating the NFC chips into their handsets. The number of NFC-enabled phones hit 1 billion in 2015, and then doubled shortly thereafter. Today all the top-10 phone manufacturers sell NFC-enabled devices and it will soon become just another standard sensor.