In the last few days reports have emerged in many leading tech journals, that Apple is about to expand the capabilities of the iPhone's NFC chip and open it up for use in smart locks.
This has been a long time coming. NFC has been inside iPhones since 2014, but it has been locked into only use for Apple Pay.
Apple is slated to announce its NFC's new capabilities during its upcoming Worldwide Developers Conference, which will begin on June 4th. Once the features become available, even older iPhones made in 2014 or later can unlock NFC by downloading a software update.
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.
Up until now, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) has been the standard technology used in smart locks. NFC, however, is generally considered a more secure option to Bluetooth-connected smart locks because it requires a closer range.
Bluetooth has a greater signal range and works well for file transfers and connecting wireless speakers, though NFC's speed makes it more ideal for reducing the friction in contactless payments, opening doors or hurrying through busy office buildings or mass transit turnstiles.
Bluetooth also has issues such as pairing problems, and blackspots. In addition, Bluetooth has to be turned on separately inside users phones, and it drains phone batteries fast.
And if the phone batteries die, then you can’t use your Bluetooth and your phone, which means the user is susceptible to lock-outs. Further Bluetooth has been exposed recently as being hackable and insecure.
So NFC as compared to Bluetooth is more secure, more reliable, faster, it won’t drain your phone battery, and it will continue to work even if your phone battery dies.
So due to all these limitations and problems of Bluetooth, it has restricted the applications for smart locks to mostly people’s houses. In places where security is crucial, and where there is a regular flow of different types of people such as offices, hotels, workplaces, or critical infrastructure, they've had to reject Bluetooth locks.
This is all about to change with NFC in Apple phones.
NFC has been available in millions of Android phones since 2012. 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.
If Apple had of opened up NFC in 2014, when they first put the NFC chips in their phones, then we probably would not have seen leading smart lock makers such as August, Schlage, and Kwikset selling Bluetooth locks.
But with Apple’s upcoming announcement about NFC, lock makers won’t have to include Bluetooth into locks anymore.
In order to offer a variety of other features such as notifications of who opened your door at what time, and a remote unlock from anywhere, Bluetooth locks need Wi-Fi.
So that means we should start seeing more NFC and Wi-Fi locks being made then, and used everywhere? Wrong.
Just like Bluetooth, it doesn’t make any sense to keep Wi-Fi in smart locks either. Wi-Fi, designed specifically for use by humans for large file transfers and connecting humans to the internet, also comes with its own set of problems.
Not only has Wi-Fi, like Bluetooth, been exposed as being hackable and insecure, it also has similar problems such as not always connecting, taking time to connect, phone battery drain, and blackspots.
In addition, Wi-Fi locks require onsite network infrastructure including routers, modems, and Wi-Fi bridges, which also means onsite power.
So once again, you can see why smart locks with both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have not rolled out to your local sporting facilities, your local offices, hotels, schools etc. Although some Wi-Fi/Bluetooth smart lock companies have had some successes in sales to homeowners, there has also been a lot of resistance for homeowners to buy Wi-Fi/Bluetooth smart locks too.
So with NFC about to replace Bluetooth in smartlocks, fortunately a new technology has been developed to also replace Wi-Fi in smart locks, and that new technology is called NB IoT.
NB IoT is purpose built for devices and machines to connect to the internet and to communicate with each other. It also takes advantage of the inbuilt security and encryption offered in the mobile phone network, so it’s far more secure than Wi-Fi.
NB IoT is currently being rolled out on over 30 telecommunication companies mobile networks globally. NB IoT does not require any onsite power, or onsite network infrastructure. The devices connect directly to the internet through the telco's mobile networks. The costs to use the NB IoT network are very low - for example as low as 10 Euros for 10 years.