This year’s roundup of iPhone rumors, like many years before it, included chatter that the iPhone 5 would finally receive NFC technology. But as we found out in September, those reports were once again unfounded.

Despite the fact that several Android handsets support the wireless connection, Apple has yet to add it to its mobile products. But according to a newly granted patent, it may be working on some kind of alternative…

PatentlyApple points to a series of patents that were awarded to Apple by the United States Patent and Trademark Office yesterday. And out of those inventions, there was one in particular that stood out.

The patent covers a method and apparatus for triggering network device discovery, and involves a process within a portable electronic device that identifies itself for purposes of establishing communications with another device that is in proximity. It’s described as a peer-to-peer technology, similar to NFC.

“in accordance with Apple’s newly granted patent, a method for network device discovery monitors a compass output in a portable electronic device. As the portable device and an external device come closer to each other, a magnetic field signature is computed based on the monitored compass output. A determination is then made as to whether the computed signature could be associated with or implies that a previously defined type of electronic device (with which a network device discovery process can be conducted) is in close proximity.”

In other words, as the two devices get closer to each other, their magnetic characteristics cause the compass output to change in a way that implies that a network device discovery process should be initiated between the two devices. These detected changes can then be compared to previously stored patterns for recognition.

And what’s cool is, this method would be able to detect whether the compass output was another mobile phone, thus activating a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth protocol for sharing photos and other content (think AirDrop for iOS) or some sort of payment device, which would bring up Passbook or some other type of application.

All of this being said, Apple has been granted a number of patents regarding actual NFC tech. And it did just purchase a company known for its work in the field. But when asked why the iPhone 5 didn’t include the technology, SVP Phil Schiller said that it’s not clear that NFC is the solution to any current problem.

It seems pretty clear, though, that Apple has plans for NFC or a similar technology down the road.

  • Rather come up with something that can tell the direction and distance between two tagged objects. The whole identify whether its another phone or payment device seems irrelevant, as with NFC it can connect to the other device and then establish what type of device it is and bring up the relevant app.

    • Solowalker

      Not exactly sure of the practical applications of your suggestion, but with software that could technically be possible with this method of using magnetic interference. If you know what the expected strength of each device’s magnetic field is supposed to be you could detect and calculate the relative direction and distance between two devices (provided one device moves slightly at least once during a sampling period so you can calculate the difference between measured interference).

      Hope that makes sense.

      • Falk M.

        It does, well, the advantage could be that you have several items that you know you’ll need sometime down the road but want to store away in the attic for example…

        Now… which box is it in?
        We all know that, a smart smartphone could possibly tell us. 🙂

        Just create a label for such an object to stick it on.

        I’m thinking about moving to another house, being forgetful about where which christmas stuff is, where your old favorite toy from childhood days is and so on.

        MANY good applications. 🙂

  • Anirudh B

    This isn’t an “NFC alternative”… reading the summary on PatentlyApple, it is nothing more than “a method for network device discovery monitors a compass output in a portable electronic device.” So no NFC alternative, since it can’t even communicate data; all it can do is figure out if a device is nearby and whether to connect to it.

    • Solowalker

      Depends on what your view of NFC is. In general, NFC is used to have 2 devices discover each other and then pass secure information between each. While this patent in and of itself isn’t a complete replacement for NFC, it definitely could be combined with other communication methods such as Bluetooth with extra software features such as instant temporary pairing with a complex randomly generated key, communication encryption, and special certificates and receipts to verify transactions and identities.

      Therefore you could technically have something more secure than NFC (whose security is frequently limited to proximity) but operates in an extremely similar fashion to the point that it’s almost indistinguishable to the end user. And you could have the bonuses of not having worrying about an additional chip to cram into the device somewhere as well as not worrying about touching one exact spot on your device to an exact spot on something else to make the magic work.

    • Lordthree

      It’s not clear that it ‘cannot communicate data’

  • This is great only if you are able to connect with android phones and tablet with ease.If it only let you use with apple device that’s B.S.

    • It will let you connect with millions possible iPhones + iPads + iPods + even Macs and payment devices…

      it is huge…