Apple's hired an expert in near-field communications to be its new product manager for mobile commerce. This is big news, in ways you may not immediately grasp: Propelled by Apple's cachet and iPhone's appeal, wireless payment tech may now be about to sweep over the world.
The man in question is Benjamin Vigier, who's been working in near-field comms (NFC) since at least 2004. In previous roles at flash memory firm Sandisk and Bouygues Telecom in France he worked on NFC tasks, and while at mFoundry—a mobile payments firm in the U.S.—he was responsible for PayPal Mobile and Starbuck's mobile service that made use of unique on-screen barcodes for payments. He's basically one of the big go-to guys if you're interested in cell phone payment systems.
Near-field comms is how some contact-free metro, train and bus ticketing systems work: You've probably used one if going through the pedestrian barriers at a station involved you merely waving your ticket over a sensor pad instead of shoving it in a slot (it's also how those injectable pet ID tags work). NFC uses very short-range radio signals to send data between two system, typically with a flat spiral metal antenna—this is concealed inside those smart train tickets, since it's both cheap and flexible. In the ticket-like implementation of NFC, there's a tiny silicon chip in the ticket that gets both power and data from the radio waves when it's in use, and the unique codes on the chip tell the ticketing system which journey you've paid for an so on. This is the low-technology version, which is basically about as smart as a barcode identity system but a deal more secure.
In high-tech NFC implementations, the antenna is hooked up to something much more powerful like a smartphone. When the phone is placed on or over an NFC sensor pad, much more complicated data can then be sent between the two systems, with data going to and from the phone.
Now remember what happens when you hand over your credit card in a store: All the card contains is a very short string of numbers that identifies you and your bank data. You confirm the transaction with a PIN or a signature, and the store uses this data to sort out the payment. Now imagine your phone has the low-tech NFC circuitry in it, and instead of handing over a card, you plop your phone on a pad—the store gets the same numbers, and the payment works exactly the same. But if your smartphone has the clever NFC tech inside it, all sorts of astonishing stuff is possible: The store could transmit ads to your phone, loyalty card points, free apps, games ... the possibilities are literally endless.
NFC tech has been available for years, but it's only really taken off in a few markets—like Japan—since the benefits have been pretty much limited to its contact-free nature. But now, with smartphones becoming the norm, the cleverer uses of NFC could mean the tech is about to explode into usefulness: It's why Nokia's interested in the technology too. But which company out there could grasp the interactive aspects of NFC, and turn it into an immersive, secure, innovative and clever way to connect your smartphone to store computers, or ticketing computers (or computers in all sorts of other places, like airport check-in desks)? Apple. Check out the list of patents they've been filing about NFC over the last couple of years. Think about the App Store and how third party developers could use NFC. Think about Apple's cool geek-chic image, and how wildly popular the iPhone is, and how it's transformed the face of the modern smartphone industry. Remember the new iPhone 4 has a glass back, perfect for transmitting radio waves to and from a flat spiral antenna, which could easily be squeezed inside the iPhone 5.
Benjamin Vigier may be about to transform how you think about credit card payments, and turn your iPhone into very much more than a phone/credit card/mobile internet device. You can bet everyone else is going to follow soon after, too.
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