Apple, Android and NFC – how should libraries prepare?
Being an enthusiastic supporter of RFID I was pleased to see Apple finally embrace NFC in its latest iPhone range – albeit a little half-heartedly – joining the growing list of devices that already support the technology.
Apple’s diffidence in restricting NFC to payments for the time being is perhaps understandable given its enormous market potential and their caution should probably be applauded.
For libraries the potential is obvious. Library users in possession of an NFC device potentially already have access to any item bearing the most common type of RFID tag since they not only operate at the same frequency as NFC but support communication protocols that enable devices to read and write data to both smartcards and item tags (subject to any encryption or data-locking that may be in place).
Up until now NFC has been rightly viewed with some caution by librarians since it could be used maliciously in libraries using RFID for self-service etc. The UK’s library and book trade standards body – Book Industry Communication (BIC) – gave an assessment of the risks and issued its guidance for librarians earlier in the year. To date there have been no reported malicious attacks on library stocks so it would seem that the optimism the document expressed was justified.
With Apple set to unleash NFC’s potential in 2015 (according to industry journalists) the potential for exploiting the happy accident of its compatibility with library RFID stock increases significantly. Borrowers could potentially self- issue or scan items at the shelf – reducing the load (and the investment) on self-service and potentially increasing our understanding of stock use within the library.
But it doesn’t stop there. Access to buildings, e-book loans, media downloads – all could potentially be managed using NFC. Existing library apps – like those promoted by Boopsie and Solus could easily be enhanced to take advantage of this direct interaction with library assets (books and media being only a part of the picture). New suppliers and new apps also seem likely to emerge – if circumstances are right.
And getting those circumstances right is the point of this post.
It took far too long to persuade librarians of the benefit of agreeing common standards for RFID (suppliers recognised the benefits much faster) but most new installations now use a recognised data model of some kind. In a library with only self-service and using kiosks for issue and return the proprietary nature of many early solutions was less important. The system worked in the library – and that was all that mattered.
But if we are to gain the maximum advantage from Apple and Android’s “free gift” of NFC to libraries we need to start planning right now how best to take advantage of the opportunity – and that means revisiting standards for data and communication, and establishing library best practice BEFORE the market is flooded with applications that might encode information in a hundred different ways – as they did with RFID before 2011.
I’m sure that in some countries – where there are nationally recognised standards bodies to help libraries through this process – this is already a topic under active discussion but for the UK it will sadly be yet another opportunity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
For me BIC would seem to be the only game in town at the moment – but its work still seems to be largely unacknowledged by many librarians. Only last week one told me that they had no interest in cataloguing and therefore had never taken any interest in BIC – this was during a conversation about library use of e-books – just one of the areas where BIC works to bring together suppliers and consumers to find commonly acceptable solutions to supply chain problems (and yes, circulation IS a supply chain activity).
Clearly BIC needs to work harder to promote greater understanding of its role. But it’s still the closest thing we have to a National Library Standards Agency – and I think worthy of support from librarians – especially in times of change.
I have to declare an interest here – I’ve been working with BIC since my Nielsen days so I’m biased in its favour. You may have alternative suggestions.
I’d love to hear them!