iPhone in your home: Hello RFID?

May 21st, 2007
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Art Scrambles

For Apple to create a true digital home, devices like your computer and Apple TV need to communicate with each other. To communicate, they must first be able to discover each other. And before even that, they must be able to sense each other.

Sensing requires configuration, and consumers don’t like configuration. Quick, what’s an extended service set identifier? Should you use WPA on your wireless network? WEP-40, or WEP-128?

Most people don’t know, and they shouldn’t have to.

Conquering configuration will be a crucial step. As more devices appear in the home, the headache of making them work together threatens to spoil everything. It’s bad enough tweaking settings on a computer screen, but what do you do when devices are too small to have a screen?

According to Apple, you use RFID. And configuration just goes away.

In a patent application filed in 2006 Apple provided a glimpse of how devices might use RFID tags to connect with your wireless home network without requiring any configuration at all. RFID tags are tiny chips, tiny ID tags that announce what a device is and what it can do. Stores are already using them to track inventory, but they can be used for many other purposes, such as authenticating passports.

Here’s how using RFID for network configuration might work according to that patent, beginning with your new iPhone as an example:
 

Hold your iPhone near your Airport Extreme base station, about a foot away.

The Airport Extreme senses your iPhone automatically via an RFID exchange and in a second exchange gives your iPhone a limited physical description of your wireless network including the extended service set identifier (ESSID) and radio channel, as well as the authentication and encryption passwords it will need to connect to your wireless network.

Remember, you have to be holding the iPhone one foot away from your base station or this won’t work, so this isn’t the security breach it might seem.

Turn on your iPhone if it’s not already on.

Yes, your iPhone didn’t have to actually be on for the first step to work. But you do have to turn it on now, and do this fairly soon or you may have to start over. The patent mentions limiting the time window to make first contact as a security measure.

Your iPhone attempts to connect to your wireless network for the first time.

Your Airport Extreme told your iPhone about itself, but the trust is not yet complete. The passwords may have been provisional and might require an additional confirmation.

Your iPhone is now securely connected to your wireless network.

The iPhone’s connection to your home network is completely authenticated, encrypted, and entirely secure. To you, that’s pretty close to magic. You bought the iPhone, took it out of its box, waved it in front of your Airport Extreme, turned it on and boom, it’s connected.

No configuration.

Other devices will follow these same initial steps as you add them to your home network, whether you’re adding another Airport Express to extend your wireless network, or introducing a new Apple Wireless Remote to your living room.

Oh, you haven’t heard about the Apple Wireless Remote? More about that soon.