Tim Green: "We don't need no (stinking) NFC badges" | Mobile Payments | Mobile Entertainment

Tim Green: "We don't need no (stinking) NFC badges"

Tim Green:
Tim Green

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Payments / NFC / March 7th 2013 at 1:51PM

Did you go contactless at MWC? Oh dear...

"OK, just open the app there. And now turn the phone round. Good. Now move it down a tiny bit. Now up. And down a tiny bit more. OK, lift the phone a little. Now touch the screen. Great, you're in!

"Off you go and join your colleagues who are waiting patiently in Hall 8."

Ladies and gents, I give you the speedy and delightful NFC badge experience at MWC.

Yes, the GSMA was all over NFC at this year's MWC. 3,000 phones were given out to triallists to check out the tech, and the big pull was supposed to be the ability to 'tap in' to the show using just your handset, thus bypassing the idiots with their plastic name tags and laughable paper passports.

But as you can see, it didn't really work out that way. In fact, had more people elected to use their NFC badges, I suspect the queues would have been horrendous.

Once inside, the new Fira was awash with posters promising instant NFC access to useful info and services. I hung around these posters a lot, because they were generally an oasis of calm in a show of 70,000 people.

Barely anyone used them, but I did. And here's what happened when I tried to 'instantly' download the NFC Coupon app to access offers...

Tap the tag. Launch browser session. Click to download.

Alert: 'You are unauthorised to download this app as it is not from Google Play'

Go to settings. Change permissions.

Scary warning: "Your phone is vulnerable to attacks. You agree to be responsible for damage to your phone etc etc"

Click yes. Download app. Try to open 'Restaurants' link.

Forbidden! Further downloads needed. Downloads completed. Click 'Around Me' for nearby offers and deals.

Reveal map of Africa.

Africa.

And I did check that GPS was on, but the map remained stubbornly fixed on the land of Simba and the Watusi. I suppose in a sense Africa is 'around me', like the Milky Way or my psychic aura, but I was really after some shops.

Throughout the week, all I heard were negative stories about NFC, with people complaining it didn't work in the restaurants, and that it was slow and clunky.

But still there remains this unstoppable momentum behind it.

So what is it about NFC that makes it such a big deal for the mobile industry? Well, obviously, it's money. For some reason NFC – a data transmission tech, like BlueTooth or wi-fi – has become inextricably linked to mobile payments: put your wallet in your phone and tap to make small payments in store.

For this to work, that wallet needs to be safe - and mobile operators reckon the best place for this 'secure element' is the SIM. And they would like to charge banks and card companies a fee to book a spot in there.

But it's hard to find anyone who really believes in this model. The big MWC project was masterminded by GSMA and Accenture, so I asked two insiders I happen to know what they thought. Paraphrased, here is how those conversations went.

"This is off the record, right? It's doesn't work. No one understands how to make money from it. It's NFC: Never. Fucking. Coming."

Then we had Vodafone's CEO Vittorio Colao saying: "NFC is probably not going to be a huge amount of money for us, but it is a fantastic customer experience."

Here's Paul Galant of Citibank: "No one has 100 per cent clarity on how much new revenue we can generate by replacing plastic with the mobile wallet. I can't tell my board I'm getting a return. That's why it hasn't taken off yet."

And here's what MasterCard's SVP of mobile James Anderson told me: "If the NFC SIM can deliver value, then the operators should be paid. The challenge is working out exactly what that value is."

The thing about NFC is that it's quite cool when it works. But the best applications of the tech I've seen so far have been tapping to turn a speaker on – that kind of thing. Not much cash for operators in that.

For all his equivocation, MasterCard's Anderson is a firm believer in mobile NFC payments. He just reckons it's 15 years from total mass acceptance.

Of course, it's entirely possible that some new form of mobile payment (why not turn PingIt into an in-store solution, for example?) might leapfrog NFC and make this whole race redundant.

But let's assume Anderson is right. The big question comes back to whether the operators have a role to play.

Don't forget Visa announced a deal with Samsung to 'wallet enable' its next-gen phones that doesn't necessitate a secure SIM.

And earlier this week Spain's Bankinter unveiled a solution that lets shoppers pay by NFC using an apparently 'safe' app that requires no co-operation with operator, OEM or OS provider.

The NFC experience at MWC 2013 was obviously far too early. (I'm told that GSMA staff didn't get their phones because of a firmware issue). It was probably too ambitious as well. Perhaps the organisers should have focused on doing one contactless thing brilliantly.

MWC veterans like me have seen plenty of 'next big things' over the years, from broadcast mobile TV to 3D. I'm not saying NFC is Not Fucking Coming, but I am saying bring your passport to next year's show.

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