Google launches Android 4.4 KitKat with NFC host card emulation

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Google has launched a new update to its Android mobile operating system, including a new platform for secure Near Field Communication (NFC) transactions using Host Card Emulation (HCE) that negates the need for a secure embedded element.

The new HCE function on Android 4.4 KitKat will allow any Android app to emulate an NFC smart card, so users can tap their smartphones to initiate transactions with the app of their choice.

In addition, a new Reader Mode has been added to the OS that enables apps to become a reader for HCE cards and other NFC transactions.

This change could have a serious impact on operators and device manufacturers, who each in their own way want to have control over mobile payments – be it the operators controlling the SIM cards or the device manufacturers controlling the secure element in the phone.

Miles Quitmann, managing director of NFC vendor Proxama, told Mobile Europe that HCE enables a payment card to launch in a relevant handset without the requirement of a network operator or a trusted service manager (TSM).

“It is very significant and could annoy the operators, but I think they should embrace it. They have fantastic relationships with consumers and they have the opportunity to utilise consumer data in order to generate value for consumers with personalised offers and unique content,” he said.

According to the Android Developers website, when a smartphone is held over an NFC reader, the NFC controller in the device typically routes the data from the NFC reader straight to the secure element.

Using the new HCE function, the NFC reader will route the data straight to the host CPU in the device, on which the Android applications are running directly. The service is executed and runs in the background without the user needing to launch an app and is most suitable for loyalty or transit cards.

The HCE function supports various different emulating cards based on the NFC-Forum ISO-DEP specification, particularly ISO/IEC 14443-4, and the process Application Protocol Data Units (APDUs) as defined in the ISO/IEC 7816-4 specification.

Android mandates emulating ISO-DEP only on top of the Nfc-A (ISO/IEC 14443-3 Type A) technology, while support for Nfc-B (ISO/IEC 14443-4 Type B) technology is considered by Google to be optional.

KitKat will first be seen on the upcoming Google Nexus 5 smartphone, and apart from NFC, is an important update for Android as the new OS is designed to run on a wide range of devices, from smartphones to entry-level devices that have as little as 512MB of memory.

Dalvik JIT code cache tuning, kernel samepage merging (KSM) and swapping to zRAM are some of the optimisations designed to help manage memory.

The internet giant is also introducing a new API called “ActivityManager.isLowRamDevice()” that enables app developers to tune their app’s behaviour to match a device’s memory configuration, so large-memory features can be disabled and optimised for entry level handsets.

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