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NFC on your phone: never leave home without it

There's nothing wrong with NFC. In fact I think it's going to prove itself to be a crucial smartphone/tablet capability (perhaps at least as important as cellular broadband itself). But, as we've long held here at TelecomTV, mobile payment and NFC is being over-emphasised. It's not going to be all about tap and pay.

What NFC is all about is 'transactions' in the broader sense - exchanges of data authorised by proximity: that's where the real value is.

Two events brought me back to thinking about NFC-embedded smartphones. I was this week in Cambridge filming for a programme we're doing on Springboard IoT, a business accelerator programme for Internet of Things start-ups.

WiFi and NFC played a prominent role in several of the projects currently being incubated by the programme. Wifi to do the heavy lifting, embedded NFC on a smartphone to act as the bootstrap for some sustainable process or other.

Here's a simple scenario (not one of the Springboard projects - you'll have to watch out for our video on TelecomTV).

Imagine: you get your connected refrigerator home from the 21st century appliance store. There's no instructions, just a sticker on the side of the fridge saying:1. Plug your fridge to the mains power.2. Make sure your smartphone is connected to your home WiFi or cell service.3. Touch your smartphone on this sticker . your smartphone will now register the fridge (for warranty purposes) and will download the instructions on how to use it. It will also arrange its smartgrid connection enabling you to save 30 per cent of your power bill by having the fridge power down at peak load; or... that sort of thing. In short, NFC will be the way we all kick-start processes and connections of all kinds with our personal, multi-purpose devices.

The other event was the departure of Osama Bedier from Google Wallet, Google's near field communications (NFC) based mobile payments system.

You may remember that Bedier's move caused a bit of a media storm when PayPal (from whence he came) decided to sue Bedier for allegedly stealing its secrets and handing them over to Google.

If he did, they haven't done Google much good. A couple of years on and it's fairly plain that Google has failed to pull together the necessary partnerships to make Google Wallet really fly. For instance, currently the only major US network supporting it is Sprint.

In fact Bedier's departure from the good ship Google is just the latest in half a dozen movings on. They could be a sign of vigorous poaching in an up-and-coming market, or they could indicate that Google's Wallet has fizzled somewhat since its launch in 2011 and nobody can find a way to reignite it, hence the exiting.

So is Google doing badly with its wallet play or is the entire NFC-based payment via phone just a global loser?

That's a little hard to tell. In the UK some retail chains are reporting a steady increase in contactless payments, but much of that is done via plastic card, not smartphone.

It seems to be the same where NFC-based payment has really caught on. Hong Kong is oft-quoted as a massive adopter of just about everything - it is by far and away the world's biggest adopter of smartphones, for instance - and contactless payment is no exception.

Banking group HSBC has just reported that its own Hong Kong contactless credit card usage grew from a miserly 17 per cent of card holders in 2011 to a respectable 31 per cent last year. In late 2012 it launched smartphone NFC support too but has refused to give figures on what the take-up has been... we are left to assume it is less than brilliant.

Recent research by ComScore in the US backs up the thesis that the digital wallet there is currently a digital yawn. Only half of the US public is aware of any digital payment provider apart from PayPal, and only 12 per cent of them have used something like Google Wallet or MasterCard PayPass Wallet.

So I think we're entitled to conclude that while contactless payment is arguably doing fairly well overall in a steady, plodding sort of a way with a few hotspots and quite a few luke-warm spots, contactless payment on embedded smartphones is not taking the world by storm at all. At least not yet.

TelecomTV did a an industry survey on mobile payments in 2011 where we concluded that mobile payment was likely to be a highly complex and highly contested field - the big banks and card companies were unlikely to let go without a huge fight - the key would be to partner.

Given that, we thought that the focus by telcos on embedded smartphone NFC as a way in to mobile payments was probably starting in the wrong place. As we wrote at the time: "In the long run, device-enabled mobile payment will be as much about the broader value of transactions and information exchange in the context of payment, as it will be about payment itself." Then we were thinking about coupons, detailed statements, product information and other marketing-oriented inducements which might be initiated by NFC.

Today as we start threading the world of things into our individual online worlds, NFC will likely have an even broader set of uses. We'll probably never leave home without it.

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