Three of the biggest names in consumer electronics - Sony, Nokia and Philips - have come together to develop a new technical standard that could see your Visa card merging with your mobile phone.
Near Field Communications (NFC) uses radio frequency identification (RFID) to simplify the way we use our mobile kit, both as consumers and businesses. The technology has three main applications: secure mobile payments, peer-to-peer communication, and access to information on the move. The idea is that it will let you get content and services and transfer data simply by touching a smart object, or by bringing two devices close together.
Imagine sending a photograph between two phones. Touch the handsets together and the NFC technology negotiates how best to transfer the data. If both phones have Bluetooth, for example, it would initiate a Bluetooth connection.
And this is technology that is real, not wishful thinking. Nokia has already built an RFID reader into the shell of its 5410 handset. Hold the handset near an RFID tag, and the two will exchange information. This solution is already in use in Germany. A security firm has fixed the tags at points along its security guards' patrol routes. The employee touches his handset to a tag, and his boss immediately knows where he is and whether he is on schedule.
But for it to take off in the consumer world, everyone has to use the same standard. This is where the NFC forum comes in.
Building the standard will be relatively easy, said Sebastian Nyström at Nokia's Insight and Foresight division. "Sony and Philips both expect to have products on the market later this year, which should give you an idea of how fast we are expecting to work. You just have to apply a little foresight, try to imagine what you might want it to be able to do in the future."
RFID is also being built into some "contactless" credit cards. Sony and Philips see the tags finding their way into all consumer electronics, if not into white goods and cars as well.
Teruaki Aoki, a senior executive vice-president at Sony, said that he foresees wide adoption of the technology as a bridge between consumer electronic devices: for example from mobile phones to DVD players.
The possibilities are vast: the standard could be written to give content owners assurances about the security of their digital rights, for example. Put a tag into a poster promoting a new single and your customers could just touch the phone to the tag to buy the song. It is already possible to buy ringtones like this, Mr Nyström says. Once you make that mental gear change, merging a credit card with a phone is an obvious step to take.
The main challenge the forum is likely to face is the public mistrust of RFID technology. The worry is that companies might use the RFID tags to follow our movements.
Gerhard Romen, the head of the Touch and Go project at Nokia, says that these fears are unfounded. "The range of these devices is so small - maybe three centimetres," he says. "You really have to touch the devices together to make them talk to each other."
Lucy Sherriff writes for The Register. www.theregister.co.uk