You may never have heard of NFC – near field communication. It’s the technology that enables contactless communication between devices such as phones and tablets. Yet many in the technology and financial services industries regard it as the holy grail. They see it as a sure way to make paying by mobile phone as commonplace as using a credit card. They whisper the magic letters with reverence.
But this belief in the potential of NFC is almost certainly misplaced. It’s a classic case in focusing on the technology, rather than what it does, and what consumers and businesses want. Or, putting it another way, the classic mistake of assuming that if you ‘build it, they will use it’.
Not everyone thinks that NFC is so compelling. Contrary to speculation, Apple chose not to add NFC to the iPhone 4S. It may, or may not, be a feature of the next generation iPhone.
Another sceptic is PayPal. I explained why in an interview with TechRadar editor Patrick Goss. My point was simple: very few consumers have NFC phones. Retailers have to spend a lot of money on new in-store systems to take NFC payments. They need convincing that consumers are going to use NFC before making the commitment.
Just creating the technology isn’t enough. Tablet computers were invented years before Apple launched the iPad – yet it took Apple’s genius for making things easy and enjoyable to use to turn tablets into a mass market product. I sensed I was regarded as speaking out of turn when I expressed doubt about NFC at a London discussion about mobile payments this week – yet the enthusiasts seemed to assume that NFC was bound to succeed.
As I told TechRadar, “NFC may well be interesting and transformational in a few years time but the reality is that the world may well have moved on by then”.
Sometimes, simple, existing technology proves the answer. It’s already possible to shop and pay on your mobile, with apps, mobile websites and more. I showed Patrick how simple it is to pay for a meal at your table in PizzaExpress with a smartphone: NFC not required. PayPal handled $4 billion in mobile payments globally last year and expects this to rise to $7 billion in 2012. NFC barely features in this story.
Disclosure: I am head of PR for PayPal UK.