Why The NFC No-Show For Apple? It’s The Apple Experience

Written by Frank Hayes
October 5th, 2011

Apple on Tuesday (Oct. 4) made the boldest—and smartest—mobile payment move it possibly could: nothing. Based on almost any metric—customer experience, market share domination, ROI/profit enhancement, pushing the sales of non-payment hardware/software, etc.—the right course now is for Apple to sit back and let Visa, Google, PayPal, Square and ISIS fight it out as they pay for the infrastructure. Then, when the bugs have been worked out so Apple can deliver its legendary “it just works” customer experience—then jump in.

Not unlike IBM in the 80s and 90s, Apple is in the highly enviable position that it can wait until it’s time and then still dominate the market when it makes the move. Indeed, it might even be easier and more effective to do it that way. But that strategy will also determine who will define the retail NFC standards that matter—the ones on the checkout counter and in the retailer’s datacenter. And that won’t be Apple.

How much clout does Apple have by way of the iPhone right now? To get a hint, let’s look at the deal the company cut with Sprint. According to some details from The Wall Street Journal, Sprint has signed on to buy more than 30 million iPhones over the next four years. Estimated cost: $20 billion at current prices. And Sprint will likely have to subsidize those phones by $500 each, or $15 billion, to sell them.

That’s not confidence in the iPhone. It’s desperation to have the iPhone, from a mobile carrier that already has all the Android phones it needs—including the only one that currently does mobile payments with Google Wallet. Sprint wants iPhones because of that Apple Experience (sort of like Disney World, complete with the lines).

When Apple does NFC mobile payments, it will have to provide that elegant, just-works experience, too. But right now, that’s impossible. Apple could create the perfect NFC-enabled iPhone and it wouldn’t matter, because mobile payments depend on the POS devices on retailers’ counters and the back-office systems that process the transactions. If they don’t work, that perfect iPhone becomes a pretty piece of junk, and the Apple Experience is toast.

Right now, Google Wallet is suffering from those early kinks in the system: Widespread reports of transactions that won’t go through or that take an hour to reconcile; POS terminals that are supposed to work with both NFC phones and contactless cards but don’t actually work with either; customers and associates who aren’t sure how things are supposed to work, so they can’t even tell for sure if something has gone wrong.

That’s not necessarily Google’s fault, any more than it would be Apple’s—there are lots of independent parts in any payments system, and most of them are outside the direct control of any one player.


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