The new iPhone 5 has many features, but one that’s still missing is near field communication, also known as NFC. It's also known as that thing where you wave your phone at a transceiver by the cash register to pay for your cappuccino. What the heck is taking so long for the “mobile wallet” concept to catch on?
The problem lies in the inability, at least so far, for American wireless carriers, banks and retailers to collaborate to get the necessary systems and agreements in place. Things are quite different in a country like Japan, where hugely powerful and vertically monopolized wireless carriers have actually taken equity stakes in banks and retailers to essentially force mobile payments into existence. In the developing world, where fewer people are tied to banks and credit cards, mobile payments (pre-paid with cash) also work quite well as an easy way to move money around.
Google has tried to push things forward with the Google Wallet, and some Android phones do have NFC, but they use it mainly for data transfers between phones, not for mobile payments. There’s plenty of room for developers to experiment in this space.
With only two percent of merchants worldwide currently equipped with NFC-reader terminals, Apple seems in no big rush to burden its phone design with the additions of the requisite chip and antenna. For now it seems satisfied to promote its Passbook mobile payment software, which runs on iOS 6 and is a bar-code-based system. Starbucks is pushing ahead with bar code systems as well. That leaves the pundits to debate the chicken and egg problem. Does NFC need Apple’s embrace to make mobile wallets truly take off?
Some companies aren’t waiting. France-based INSIDE Secure has sold hundreds of millions of NFC “tags” that can be embedded in just about anything (think advertising posters) to share information with NFC phones. Proxama is working with Device Fidelity on an NFC battery sleeve for the iPhone 5 to interact with NFC marketing tags embedded in posters or product packaging.
And an AT&T, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile USA consortium called Isis hopes to test an NFC system in Salt Lake City and Austin later this year. It’s a start, but there are still huge hurdles to sweeping adoption.
Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Gartner, told Computerworld that "Consumers are not jumping up and down to get NFC right now…You wonder how ready they are for mobile payments…This doesn't mean Apple is not interested in NFC. They will do it when they can take advantage of it and deliver a differentiated solution to users.