Telecommunications, Automotive and Market Research

More than 15 years in the mobile telecommunications industry and an industry analyst since 1998.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Back from the dead... NFC shows up in cell operators' plans

I had all but given up on near-field communication (NFC) for financial transactions in the US. It's extremely popular in Japan, but I've been pessimistic about the ability of diverse companies to put aside their competitive differences and pull together behind a single standard.

And yet, here's news from two different fronts that suggests that a technology I've been trying to champion for the past four years may actually be gaining a foothold. In one corner is Google. In the other corner is a consortium of rivals from the cellular and financial industries.

First, there's this New York Times article by Claire Cain Miller about Google's new phone including an NFC chip. Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, was quoted in the article saying:

Phones will know when someone walks into a store and can provide relevant information, he said. The technology reduces the risk of fraud, he said, because the person and their phone must be present at the point of payment, and could be connected to a person’s credit card number.
“This could replace your credit card,” he said. “The reason this N.F.C. chip is so interesting is because the credit card industry thinks the loss rate is going to be much better, they’re just more secure.”
Sounds a lot like something I'd said a couple weeks ago.

Second, there's ISIS, a consortium of AT&T, Verizon Wireless (it's hard to picture them in the same room) and T-Mobile along with Discover Card said:

Isis is working with Discover Financial Services' payment network ... to develop an extensive mobile payment infrastructure for the joint venture.  Barclaycard US, part of Barclays PLC, is expected to be the first issuer on the network, offering multiple mobile payment products to meet the needs of every customer.
Realistically, what does this mean? Unless your favorite color is purple, don't hold your breath while you wait for ISIS to allow you to make payments from your cellphone.  Here's what will need to happen before the first card swipe (or phone tap) happens:

  •  Develop and distribute NFC-compatible card terminals to millions of retail locations (somehow, convincing those retailers that they need to purchase the new terminals, with are exactly like existing credit card readers, but also have a touch-and-go capability)
  • Arrange with credit card companies, retailers, banks and other financial institutions to accept this new technology
  • Convince cell phone vendors that there are enough compatible card terminals at retailers to spark demand for the phone
  • Convince wireless subscribers to buy an NFC-equipped smartphone
  • Convince owners of NFC-equipped smartphones that they are safe and secure enough to use them as a credit or debit card
That looks daunting, almost impossible. Yet, I'm really optimistic about mobile payments, much more than I have been for several years.  First of all, these three mobile operators have access to about 200 million US mobile users. That covers it from the telco side.  Plus, Google, and its incredibly successful Android smartphone operating system are pushing from the other direction. If the mobile operators don't get there first, they're going to have to cede yet another battle to the Internet companies.

But if these diverse groups are willing to cooperate on the telco side and compete with the Internet world, I'm suddenly full of hope that you'll see this soon. My guess is that it will be routine within five years... call it 2015.

Go back and read my pessimistic post about the leather wallet vs. the smartphone from only two weeks ago. That vision is not likely to happen without NFC, and NFC wasn't likely to happen in the US before these announcements.

(But what do we know about ISIS? Well, according to Wikipedia, Isis is "also known as the goddess of simplicity, protector of the dead and goddess of children from whom all beginnings arose." She also had a baby with her brother Osiris, which would pretty well disqualify her from, say, being a Supreme Court justice or holding any other public office.  

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