As Wi-Fi starts making its way into more internet-of-things gadgets, connecting those devices to Wi-Fi networks is becoming a chore. These activity trackers, thermostats and cameras don’t necessarily have the user interfaces or even screens we would use to configure a Wi-Fi connection on our smartphones or PCs. The Wi-Fi Alliance is now trying to make those connections easier with the help of near-field communications (NFC).
The Alliance has updated its Wi-Fi Protected Setup certification program to support NFC verification. Instead of entering a password or holding down buttons, you simply tap two Wi-Fi devices with NFC chips together to establish a connection. The technology can be used to connect devices to a local network by tapping a router, or two end-user devices by tapping them together.
For example, I’ve been testing out Whistle’s dog activity tracker for the last few months, which uses both Bluetooth to connect to my phone and Wi-Fi to connect to home network. Connecting my Whistle to my home network is a multi-step task, requiring first pairing the gadget with my phone with Bluetooth and then configuring the device to connect to my Wi-Fi through Whistle’s smartphone network. Whistle is more useful the more networks it connects to, but if I wanted to add additional Wi-Fi networks to the device – say at my parents’ place or at the kennel — the owners of those networks would have to go through the same process.
The new Wi-Fi Protected capability (and an NFC chip) would make Whistle connect instantly to the network over a secure WPA2 connection with a mere bump against the router. Of course, that’s assuming you want to give that kind of easy access to the world of internet-of-things devices. Wi-Fi Protected uses proximity as security, assuming if you can get close to a router or gadget, then it’s authorized to share connectivity. Not everyone wants their Wi-Fi networks — or devices — to be so open.
A small startup called Pylon is exploring some interesting use cases for NFC-brokered connections in the home that may address some of those security concerns. It has developed a Wi-Fi beacon that creates a guest wireless network that can be accessed with an NFC tap or a “bump” of the iPhone (the accelerometers in the devices trigger the handshake). Instead of granting all network rights to those guest devices, Pylon could restrict users to internet access only and for a short interval, say 30 minutes.
The Wi-Fi Alliance said it is now certifying devices using the new technology, and among the gadgets on its test list is Google’s Nexus 10 tablet. I wouldn’t, however, expect a huge flood of new gadgets using the capabilities. While NFC is making it into more and more smartphones, it’s still rare in devices like wearable and smart appliances. The goal of many these device manufacturers is to make their devices as inexpensive as possible, and adding an additional radio contradicts that trend.
Still, there could be a lot of use cases for NFC-brokered connections in smartphones. Instead of trying to dig up passwords whenever a friend wants to connect to your home network, they could just tap to connect. And as Wi-Fi hotspots make their way into connected cars, Wi-Fi Protected could be a brilliantly simple way to connect a tablet to the in-car network.