Last week at WWDC, Apple introduced iOS 6 amongst others. Without entering into two much detail about the hundreds of new features that the new OS will bring, there is one that reveals that Apple might be taking a serious look at mobile payments. With the introduction of Passbook in iOS 6, your iPhone will turn into a very convenient digital repository to place all sorts of digital goodies. Vouchers, loyalty cards, promotion codes, QR codes, which include boarding passes, and movie tickets, just to name a few. These can even be geotagged, so they would become active whenever you are near the target location.
Interesting and definitely very useful, but not outstanding from other competitors which are already offering partial solutions to this problem. Likely to have a wonderful user experience though, and would define standards so that companies can create their own passbook-able digital goodies. Apparently big players in different industries are already signing up for the new platform.
However, this touches some of the items that other companies are defining around a potentially very lucrative industry: mobile payments. Storing credit / debit / stored value cards in your mobile phone would be no secret, and would be similar to Google Wallet, which opens the door to adding more intelligence to the physical moment of payment.
There are many different ways into which Apple might decide to introduce mobile payments, but considering their usual appetite to be real game changers, it will be interesting to see if they have anything awaiting down their sleeve.
So far the traditional approach would be to use cards stored in the phone –in Passbook- to be used through NFC (it is yet to be seen whether iPhone 5 would ship with NFC, even though many rumors point in this direction) the integration with Passbook and other digital goodies such as vouchers, loyalty points, etc would help create a more interactive payment experience, but this would not be seen as a breakthrough as it would be quite similar to the ecosystem defined by Google around Wallet. And above all, Apple would be making not –or little- money out of this.
The payments ecosystem is complex and involves many actors. From issuers to merchants, it’s an industry which has a great dependency on a very established infrastructure, and in which having the right coverage and capillarity to reach a high percentage of POS (Points Of Sale) where new technologies of mobile payments would be accepted. This will surely be a challenge, even for a company with the drive and ability to massively push technology as Apple. NFC, with support from many companies will take some time to takeoff until a large number of Points of Sale are upgraded to support the near field technology. Yes, it is getting lots of support from mobile phone manufacturers, but merchants are yet to catch up (one-third of POS expected by end of 2012, with 2% at mid 2011 in the US).
So having set the scene, it will be very interesting to see what Apple has to offer in the mobile payments space, whether they will just rely on their ability to attract merchants to adopt Passbook as their natural digital distribution platform for digital goodies -and eventually payment methods- while reusing the existing NFC standards and Card issuers as Mastercard, Visa or American Express, or whether they will decide to change the way we understand mobile payments the same way they did with the way we understood the SmartPhone or even the way we consumed music.
There is something I quite missed on today’s Apple event. It was not Steve Jobs, and it was not iPhone 5. Actually, whether it was an upgraded iPhone 4 (as it finally turned out to be) or the long awaited iPhone 5, the feature I really missed is the NFC chip built into the latest object of desire.
manufacturers announcing -or even shipping- NFC-capable phones, it is surprising that Apple chose not to make a move on this space. The whole set of actors in the industry, from hardware and software manufacturers to card issuers, financial institutions and merchants are positioning themselves on what looks like one of the next big things in both Mobile Technology and Financial Services.
Apple is known for not leaving anything to chance, so either they do not believe in NFC (clearly unlikely, considering the push and support the technology is getting) or they are preparing something really big that is worth waiting for their next generation SmartPhone to be unveiled.
So is Apple preparing a move similar to Google’s in this space, by combining the hardware -probably linked to the iPhone 5 launch sometime next year- with a complete ecosystem of applications and platforms to cover the whole, end to end payment experience?. Is it wise for Apple to reach the market at least half a year later if they want to have a predominant position in this space?. Time will tell, but it looks that either they have an ace under their sleeve or it will be a big leap to cover if they wait for iPhone 5 to step in.
From a technology point of view, NFC (Near Field Communications) might not imply a great revolution. In a nutshell, it is an evolution of the RFID shortfield technology that has been in use for years now, adding the possibility of bidirectional communications. With RFID, your device could send some data to the receiver, but no dialogue was possible, allowing for very simple, low value applications.
So being an improvement from RFID, there is nothing too fancy about it as a technology feature. Smartphones today support various types of communications which serve different purposes, like their Wi Fi support, 3G and Bluetooth. So what is NFC bringing to the party?. The main beauty might be in its own nature. It is near field, which means it has very short range, typically up to 4 inches. This has a double advantage, first, it makes it more difficult to intercept (even though it is not impossible) and secondly, it demands very little power from the device.
Finally a solution that allows communication between two devices positioned close enough in a reasonably private manner, that demands very little space and power. How is this little thing becoming the next big thing in Mobile?.
Payments, payments and payments
A number of industries are really excited about the massive introduction of this technology in our devices. Key players from Device Manufacturers, Carriers, Financial Services Institutions, Internet giants, all of them are making their moves in the adoption of this technology. Samsung is including NFC chips in their latest Smartphones, while Google’s wallet makes use of NFC chips to replace your old fashioned plastic credit card. Even AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have teamed to create the ISIS commerce network supporting NFC payments.
In essence, the NFC chip can communicate with the point of sales device in the merchant, transmitting the necessary information so that the payment transaction can be performed, exactly as you would do with your standard credit card. Typically there will be an application in your smartphone that allows you to store your credit and debit cards information in a secure manner, and that requests a PIN number in order to access that information, securing the usage of the virtual card stored in your phone.
These applications would also allow for your card issuer to provision your card over the air onto your phone.
So far it looks interesting and convenient, but not a killer app. Even if we consider that credit card fraud due to card cloning might be more difficult with the introduction of NFC than it is today, at least for the moment.
The real beauty
It is not that you replace the plastic, it is that a whole new channel is opened, allowing Merchants and Financial Institutions to enrich the moment of the payment and use that interaction with the customer to add value, link and increase customer loyalty.
The combination of a chip for performing the physical payment transaction and an application driving the process, is the real beauty behind the NFC application to mobile payments. Now you can have coupons or virtual vouchers delivered by the merchant to your phone at any time, that you can redeem to make part of the payment. What about promotional codes delivered to your phone?. Points redemption, loyalty cards… All become now part of the ecosystem surrounding the little chip, to make the most of every time you tap your phone to pay.
Google seems to have understood pretty well the broader boundaries of what NFC is bringing to the table, with products like Wallet and Offers, which cover the whole range of services for Businesses to make the most out of the new technology. Add this to geolocation and in-door location and you can start to explore the benefits of pushing offers to the potential customers that are on the surroundings of your store, which they can instantly redeem at the moment of payment.
It will be some years for this technology to be massively present, with a conservative prediction being that it would be present in 50% of the phones by 2014. So we seem to be giving the first steps on this thrilling technology, both on the physical availability of the technology on our devices and on the number of applications we will see coming and sophisticating not only the payments process itself, but the whole relationship between Businesses, Merchants and Customers.
Thrilling, at the very least.