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Broadcom Thinks NFC's Time Is Nearing

SAN FRANCISCO -- Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) believes in near-field communications (NFC) and thinks the newly integrated chip it announced Tuesday could help kick the technology into mainstream usage.

The reason has little to do with alleged awesomeness of Broadcom, and more to do with the idea of ubiquity. Even without having NFC on the iPhone.

NFC radio chips can be used in phones, vending machines and cash registers to allow users to tap-to-pay for goods and services. It can also let phones swap information with a touch, as on that one Samsung Corp. Galaxy III commercial shown ad nauseum during the World Series. But the technology has been slow to catch on with most consumers. (See NFC Payments Forecast Scaled Down.)

The turning point could come when NFC arrives in a wide variety of devices including tablets and TVs, Broadcom officials think. Having it in more places -- being able to use the technology with more devices -- will make NFC more useful and more interesting. Gradually, it will make NFC as essential to consumers as Wi-Fi is now, Broadcom argues.

Broadcom officials explained all this during an informal press session Tuesday, where officials discussed the technologies they'll be showcasing at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January.

What makes Broadcom so confident about NFC is its experience with carrier Wi-Fi.

Smartphone OEMs liked the idea of Wi-Fi, but they didn't want to include another chip and another antenna inside their phones. A turning point came when Broadcom released one chip for both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, making the two 2.4GHz technologies share an antenna.

"They were worried about the antennas," says Michael Hurlston, Broadcom's senior vice president of home and wireless networking. "Antennas take up so much space on the phones."

In that case, the resulting chip happened to be as cheap as a standalone Bluetooth chip, so OEMs were almost literally getting Wi-Fi for free. In particular, the iPhone picked up Wi-Fi. And as the technology spread into more hands, the use cases for it widened.

Eventually, carriers that had viewed Wi-Fi as a thief of precious cellular minutes began to see it as a tool to be exploited. "Now we've got the reverse happening, where carriers want us to make it so your phone can switch to Wi-Fi when you get home," Hurlston says. The BCM43341 chip introduced Tuesday combines Bluetooth, an FM radio, Wi-Fi and NFC into one monolithic package (meaning it's fabricated as a single chip, not two or more chips glued together). That's a lot on one chip, but OEMs are already using the first three technologies and badly want NFC, Broadcom officials claimed.

Part of the excitement around NFC comes from the technology's mindlessness. Mohamed Awad, a Broadcom associate product line manager, tapped a smartphone playing a video against a tablet screen, causing the screen to play the video as well. The phone was using Wi-Fi to transmit the video -- a technology called Miracast that will also be in Broadcom's CES portfolio -- but the session was initiated with an NFC tap, without having to tell either device what to do or select where to send the video.

It's that ability to turn multistep processes into no-brainers that has OEMs craving NFC, says Awad. They see in it the potential to change applications in the way that touch screens did.

"You need to think about it as a helper technology, helping the user get the advantage of these other technologies," he says.

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— Craig Matsumoto, Managing Editor, Light Reading

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