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Friday, September 28, 2018

I got it slightly wrong - NFC mobile payments are not a complete dud

I have long been a critic of NFC-based mobile payments from smartphones. It was originally touted as a mobile operator service, debiting value (or adding to your monthly bill) with a tap. I was deeply skeptical.

Almost 10 years ago, I wrote that for it to work, "I ought to be able to check my balance from the phone screen, look at recent transactions and so on. At present, the UI/app side of NFC appears woefully weak to me". (link)

Six years ago, I was more emphastic still: "the tap-to-pay thing is a nonsense, a solution looking for a problem. The involvement of a telco adds zero value and lots of friction". (link)

I have to admit to being partly wrong. Yes, I know, it's rare for me to issue a mea culpa, but here, I have to hold my hands up!

I do actually see (some) people paying for things with their smartphones, as well as using them for stored tickets / travelcards. I also know that in China, South Korea and some other places, QR codes are popular, but that's a different technology. But for the most part, I was right about MNOs being an obstacle rather than a catalyst.

A few things have changed:
  • Linking NFC chips to native-OS capabilities like Apple and Android Pay, allowing the creation of good apps & UIs.
  • Integration with on-device biometrics, notably fingerprint- and facial-recognition
  • People commonly carrying charger cables or USB power banks, so there's less fear that running out of power = running out of money.
  • Very wide adoption of contactless plastic-card payments. In many UK and other European countries, a huge bulk of low-value retail and services-sector payments have moved to this model. This has allowed the broader concept of tap-to-pay to be normalised with plastic, and then a (currently small) % switch further to phones. It has also catalysed merchants to move to tap-to-pay terminals.
  • Most telcos bowing out of the payments value-chain, replaced by banks (old & new fintech ones), plus Apple, Google & Samsung. This has taken out cost, friction - and put the user back in control with familiar, mostly-trusted payment brands.
But it's still definitely not a "revolution". It's one of those secondary things that some people have adopted, without becoming universal. It's a bit like wearing a FitBit - people don't look at you weirdly any more, but they mostly don't intend getting one themselves. (If you pay with a watch, though, you're definitely still weird). 

NOTE: I realise that "normal" is a very geo-specific culture judgement. Within a country or even city, you may find greater levels of acceptance or scorn depending where you shop or drink coffee / beer. 

NFC phone-payment is now somewhere on the geek spectrum in between using a voice assistant (fairly normal), and wearing an AR/VR headset in public (not). There are some fairly clear demographics about who does/doesn't use NFC, as well.

This morning, for an entirely unscientific experiment, I counted 9 out of 100 people exiting my local tube station in central London using a phone rather than a card. Among card users, I couldn't tell how many used a proprietary TFL Oyster card vs. a normal credit/debit card that is now accepted at Oyster terminals. 

On closer inspection however, some of those people had phone-cases which also held some plastic cards as a physical wallet (like these - link), so given not all had been thumb-ing the screens, the actual number of proper NFC users was probably 5-7%. And that is among commuters who mostly travel every day, at 9am, so we can perhaps expect routines to be optimised. I might try another time to see how daytime "casual" usage differs.

Without having done a similar count at shops and restuarants, but having been generally observant over recent months, I'd guess that about the same percentage applies for retail transactions. Common-ish, but certainly atypical.

(As a sidenote - I'm writing this in a very nice cafe in London, which is having to apologise to customers that its card/NFC reader isn't working at all. Cash is still a critical backup).

Personally, I don't use my phone for retail payments. I use my contactless bank or credit cards, and I have a proper pre-pay Oyster. I prefer to keep my various payment and online relationships completely separate - Apple doesn't even have my credit card details.

I'm curious what the situation is elsewhere, and I'll keep an eye out when I'm travelling. My expectation is that phones will become somewhat more common for payments over time, but there's not going to be a sudden flip, as there was with contactless cards. I think geographic differences will persist too - I'd be surprised if Germany was a fast adopter of phone-based NFC, while China could well move much mor decisively. 

There might even be one or two places with telcos in the NFC-payments loop, as they are in some developing markets for messaging-based payments - but I don't see that in markets with existing high % of banking and card adoption.

Bottom line: I was definitely a bit too negative 10 years ago about the long-term future of NFC. But the transition remains slow, patchy, and dependent on the UX skills of the smartphone manufacturers. Also, few saw the behavioural acceptance of consumers being driven by tap-to-pay plastic cards as a first (and for many, last) step.