Apple On Mobile Payments: “Hey Google, You Go First”

Written by Frank Hayes
March 16th, 2011

Apple is discovering how hard it is for a smartphone to mimic an ordinary contactless payment card—and Google is about to learn the same lesson. On Monday (March 14), word leaked out that Apple won’t be including contactless payment support in the next iPhone, stunning analysts who were sure it would be there. The very next day, word leaked out that Google will launch an Android contactless-payment trial this summer—and that, ironically, will make it easier for Apple to make the jump into contactless payment next year.

The problem isn’t near field communications (NFC) itself. Apple could easily stick the hardware into the next iPhone, just as Samsung put an NFC controller and security hardware in its Nexus S Android-based phone. But Apple is worried that there’s no industry-standard way for apps to communicate with that hardware, which is also why the Nexus S can’t currently behave like a Visa PayWave or MasterCard PayPass card, either. Once Google updates Android to add a software stack that can do payments, the process of hashing out that standard can begin in earnest.

Neither Apple nor Google will confirm the leaks. But published reports said Apple told mobile carriers in the U.K. that it’s concerned about the lack of an industry standard for NFC payment support. That means Google, which reportedly is paying for thousands of NFC-equipped POS terminals for the retailers in New York and San Francisco participating in its trial, will get to see if the NFC support it chooses will work well. If it does, that could be the basis of the standard NFC protocol stack that Apple is waiting for.

At that point, “mobile payments” will still have only reached the point where smartphones can substitute for credit and debit cards in the checkout lane, and Visa and MasterCard will still own the process. But it’s the first step to enabling all the much more interesting forms of mobile payment that Apple, Google and other payment wannabes would love to get a piece of.

If it seems baffling that the long-available NFC hardware is waiting on the software, keep in mind that neither Apple nor Google can simply write an app that pretends to be a contactless credit card. Well, OK, they could. But that would be a spectacularly obvious invitation to payment-card fraud.


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