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!


  • Singapore’s public libraries are already doing it; they presented their software in last IFLA congress :

    ONG, Ian and GOH, Cindy and CHUA, Lilian and PAK, Peter (2014) Empowering the Library Patron: The Public Libraries of Singapore’s experience with transactional services delivered through a mobile application. Paper presented at: IFLA WLIC 2014 – Lyon – Libraries, Citizens, Societies: Confluence for Knowledge in Session 210 – Information Technology. In: IFLA WLIC 2014, 16-22 August 2014, Lyon, France.

    See also :

  • I was in Lyon and saw the presentation but while this is using a mobile app it is not NFC. There are any number of apps that can read barcodes – or store a barcode on the device that can be scanned at a terminal – but NFC uses radio not optical means.

  • You are right of course! I should have said that “it is already feasible using the bar-code technology”.
    Still, I thought that the Singapore National Library, back in IFLA 2008 session at Quebec, told of plans to do an RFID system like you mentioned. Apparently, it is not yet in service, otherwise I guess you would have heard about it.

  • Dave

    Apple including NFC functionality has been generally regarded as good news, but the partial support for NFC (i.e. for Apple payments only) could be as worrying for the future of NFC as it is exciting.

    For a library app to make use of the NFC functionality on an iPhone (for example), Apple need to create an programming interface to the NFC chip, for app developers to access the data at quite a low level. This isn’t the kind of thing that is really in Apple’s nature: it would lead to a mass of NFC apps, often with different ways of storing and processing data. Android for example is fantastic for NFC, but apps like NFC task launcher have their own standards for how they store ‘tasks’ on an NFC tag which trigger events on the device (e.g. scan a tag and it turns on WiFi and connects to your home network). Apple may like to bring in this kind of functionality in the future, but it is likely to be on their own terms.

    It would nice to believe that NFC will be fully opened up but the following could be a realistic scenario:

    – NFC is kept on Apple devices primarily for Apple Payments. Any other payment methods/competitors are unlikely to be allowed, meaning that full API access is significantly restricted (alternatively this could be done through terms and conditions of use).
    – Some other reading/writing of tags will be possible for automating tasks, but this will be based on an Apple defined tag standard e.g. an Apple task app where tags are restricted to Apple devices. Apple devices will recognise apple tags only some level of access may be provided to developers to that Apple ‘wrapper’.

    If that did turn out to be the case then there could be a bigger headache for libraries and library technology – essentially meaning that two sets of tags and devices would be required, those for Apple and those for other platforms.

  • All good points Dave. I was talking to an app developer only this morning who shares many of the concerns about Apple’s intentions but he also agrees that many industry commentators have suggested that there is some evidence that Apple may be forced to allow fuller access in the medium term. Certainly most of the articles I have read on the subject support this view.

    If your rather gloomy prognosis – that there’s a possibility that life may be about to become even more difficult for libraries and their suppliers – is correct, then preparing for such an eventuality is surely the only sensible strategy?

  • Dave

    Absolutely, and it’s fair to say that libraries can shape the end result by acting first. Apple react to technology trends as well as leading them (as you suggest, they can be forced into acting). If libraries start offering users on Windows and Android phones the opportunity to self-issue then iPhone users are going to wonder why they can’t.

    So the gloom is really in reaction to how we tend to wait and hope for what Apple may do next. Although Apple are great innovators in many ways, consumers need to dictate the direction that tech suppliers take. Waiting for technology to be provided can mean it never is – except in forms that best serve the suppliers and not the users (NFC for payments is a perfect example of an application of technology that serves the suppliers and their business partners).

    So there are lots of reasons to be optimistic, but it may mean taking quite a risk as well and trying to not just prepare but get in early.

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