Every year, studies come out that show that NFC is the Next Big Thing in mobile, and that it is just around the corner. Every year, the date of arrival is pushed out by another twelve months, and nothing happens. Nokia put NFC in a phone several years ago. Apple has patents for NFC. But so far, it’s not happening.
Part of the problem is that consumers aren’t looking to replace their wallets yet. Wallets are still necessary for most people because of the requirements for identification, medical cards, and other things besides the credit and debit cards that often fill them. Another part of the problem is that the solution has its problems…
Once you put NFC on a chip inside the phone, your ability to use it is tied to a) having your phone with you, and b) having your phone’s battery available. Think about this common situation turned into the NFC nightmare – you are traveling for work and stay out late at a restaurant. The restaurant is closing so you leave and wait for a cab. You get in a cab, ride to your hotel, and then, to pay, you take out your phone – wait, your phone is sitting on the table at the restaurant where you left it. Or the battery is dead. Now you are sitting outside your hotel with no way to pay. Leaving phones behind is far more common than leaving wallets behind, based on my informal survey.
Now one thing we know about NFC is that you don’t need a powered device to use it. I use the transit system in San Francisco and pay with a card that is in my wallet. Like many other riders, I don’t even take the card out of my wallet, I just tap the wallet on the reader. It works fine, although I will get to how mobile can improve the experience in the next paragraph, and it’s used in cities around the world. And it has a big advantage over the phone – I’m often talking or listening to music using my phone when I need to tap, and it would be an interruption to use the phone. A minor point, but one that is based on real-life experience.
So what is this improvement I mentioned? People want information about their purchases. They want to be able to see them immediately, to track their usage, and to know when it has been compromised. And that is what a mobile app can provide – immediate and cumulative spending feedback. Because all pertinent information can be carried in the network on the other side of the NFC reader, that information can be made available through the internet to the telephone. An app can provide information and validation immediately for any tap from a device. And it can allow events like termination that can help if the card is stolen or otherwise problematic.
Of course, there’s still the basic issue that NFC readers aren’t widely deployed and that the merchants and agencies that will take NFC payments aren’t on-board with a single vendor solution. But that has nothing to do with mobile, it’s all about the infrastructure. It’s also why current players in the payments market such as Visa and Verifone have the strongest positions going into the burgeoning NFC market. Should they make the right moves, the companies focused on mobile NFC will have far less to do. Better to focus on couponing – which doesn’t require replacing the wallet and consolidating the infrastructure. The one “gotcha” with couponing is that it can be done with visual readers and doesn’t require special in-phone hardware any more than NFC does. There is also the idea of phone-to-phone sharing via NFC, but given other easy ways to do that, it doesn’t look like it justifies incremental cost in phones.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of NFC and have even written business plans that included it. I use it almost every day with my transit card. But if the infrastructure is properly built up and the vendors agree on sharing, a card similar to today’s Visa card, supplemented by a mobile app that provides the features that mobile allows, can be just as effective, cheaper, and more reliable.