When you put Apple with its iPhone in the mix, though, things are starting to look serious for the technology to become cool in the rest of the world as well. Apple's recent hiring of Benjamin Vigier, who has been working on the Near Field Communication (NFC) adoption since its inception in Japan in 2004, might mark the beginning of a wide-spread contactless payment solution in North America.
Mr. Vigier has worked on some of the milestone projects in the cell phone payments area, such as developing the mobile wallet program for the French carrier Bouygues Telecom, and at the flash memory company SanDisk (Visa is offering contactless payments through a special microSD card, for example). He was last heading mFoundry, the payments company that is behind PayPal Mobile, the Starbucks barcode scanning service, and mobile wallet projects for two major carriers and a bank.
Apple, on the other hand, hasn't been sitting still and waiting for the cell phone payments revolution to find it by surprise. It has filed a bunch of patents in recent months, that cover most possibilities that an NFC chip will present the iPhone and iPod with, such as:
- “An NFC-based mobile payments service that lets consumers make payments to merchants and other consumers via a credit or debit card, directly from their bank account or using credit stored in their iTunes account.
- The 'iPay, iBuy and iCoupons' patents, describing a comprehensive mobile payments, mobile commerce and mobile marketing business based around an NFC-enabled iPhone.
- Products+, an NFC-based product marketing and promotions application.
- An airline ticketing and boarding pass application that describes an unmanned, automated airport ticketing and baggage counter kiosk and introduces the concept of an automated security checking process where users of the iTravel app could process themselves through the security clearance system and check themselves in at the boarding gate.
- The Grab & Go patent, designed to make it easy for customers to transfer files between devices such as the Mac, iPhone and Apple TV.
- An NFC-enabled iPod, games controller, TV and iPhone.
- An NFC-based concert, entertainment and sports venue ticketing application that includes exclusive bonus features for users of Apple's service.”
Benjamin Vigier is the new product manager of Apple's mobile commerce department now, so exciting times lie ahead for people who have been craving for a while to leave their keys (NFC can also serve as an access card), camera and wallet at home, and replace them with just their iPhone.
And, much like with every other feature that's been sitting on the sidelines all along (uhmm... FaceTime?), an Apple adoption could mean exponential growth, as long as the carriers are also on the same page. AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon recently signed an agreement with Barclays and Discover to work on partnership standard for contactless payments with your cell phone, fighting behemoth proprietary payment networks like those of Visa and Master Card, which are coming up with their own ideas. Visa even offers an unsightly case for the iPhone that allows for mobile payments, but obviously this is not the road that a design-obsessed Apple will be inclined to take.
All Nokia smartphones will be shipping with NFC chips starting next year, and the first NFC-enabled Android handsets are to arrive in Q4, so the timing is certainly ripe for Apple, if it doesn't want to be left behind.