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Companies struggle to popularise mobile money

Peter Svensson (via AP/ AFR) | March 4, 2013
Mobile money may seem like a hot concept, but consumers aren’t warming to it. At the world’s largest cellphone trade show, in Barcelona last week, the 70,000 attendees were encouraged to use their cellphones, instead of their keycards, to get past the turnstiles at the door.

Visa has struck a deal with Samsung to take charge of the “secure element” in the next flagship phone from the South Korean company. Photo: AFP

Mobile money may seem like a hot concept, but consumers aren't warming to it. At the world's largest cellphone trade show, in Barcelona last week, the 70,000 attendees were encouraged to use their cellphones, instead of their keycards, to get past the turnstiles at the door.

But very few people took the chance to do that. The process of setting up the phone to act as a keycard proved too much of a hassle.

It's a poor omen for an industry that's eager to have the cellphone replace both tickets and credit cards. Companies are building chip antennas into phones that let the gadgets interact with "tap to pay" terminals and other devices equipped with short-range sensors, like subway turnstiles. But getting the technology to do something useful and convincing people to adopt it is a slow process.

To make a payment in a store with your cellphone, "you need a lot of things to align", said Reed Peterson, who heads the Near-Field Communications initiative for the GSM Association, a global trade group for the wireless industry. The phone needs to be properly equipped with NFC hardware and software; the store needs to have the proper equipment and training. The phone company needs to support the transaction, and banks and payment processors need to be in on it.

Some of these things had fallen into place, Mr Peterson said, but the network of commercial agreements that supported these payments needs to expand. And consumer demand remained elusive.

"I want to get to the point where the consumer goes into the store and says 'Show me only the phones that have NFC'," Mr Peterson said.

Today, a buyer is quite likely to go into a store and ask for an iPhone, and that's an obstacle to NFC adoption. Apple is the lone holdout among major smartphone makers, and hasn't built NFC into any of its devices yet.

Visa, the global payments network, announced a coup at the show: it has struck a deal with Samsung Electronics to take charge of the "secure element" in the next flagship phone from the South Korean company. The Galaxy S IV is expected to be launched at an event in New York on March 14, though the name has not been confirmed.

The "secure element" is sort of like a safe inside the phone. Whoever controls access to it decides which credit cards, transit passes or other verified "documents" the phone can store. A bank that wants to let customers use their Samsung smartphones as virtual credit cards will have to go through Visa.

 

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