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Visa Beats Apple to iPhone NFC Payments in Euro Experiment

NFC iPhone

The hottest rumor about the 2011 iPhone 5 is that it'll include NFC wireless tech, ready to reinvent how you pay for stuff with credit cards. But Visa, master of existing card tech, is busy beating Apple to the punch with a new European trial of NFC on the iPhone.

Yet more grist to the NFC iPhone rumor mill is coming from Visa Europe, which has just kicked off a big trial of the technology needed to make NFC (Near Field Communications) payments work. The entire effort rests on a survey that Visa conducted of 4,200 people in four different European nations, resulting in a startling figure: 57% of iPhone users said they'd "definitely" or "probably" use Visa's wireless tech on their iPhone if they could. That's up from the all-respondents group, with 41% approval of the idea—which signals that the general public is now ready for the tech, and Apple's smartphone users are particularly keen.

As a result, Visa is going ahead with a trial that involves local cell phone networks and national banks—retailers and banks get the NFC hardware that lets their computers identify an iPhone as if it were a normal customer's credit card, and consumers in the trial get a small dongle (the Wireless Dynamics iCarte) that plugs into their iPhone's connector port that gives the phone wireless transmit-and-receive powers in the same way your metro ticket or wireless ski-pass does.

Google's also built NFC into the Nexus S, and Nokia has pledged to totally embrace the tech in all its new phones, but as we've argued before it's really down to Apple to finally push this tech into the mainstream: It has the muscle, it has the brand cachet, and millions of people already trust Apple with their credit card details to enable MP3 or low-cost iOS app purchases.

The wrinkle in this story is that for Apple's (presumed) plan to work, retailers, banks, restaurants and so on will need NFC dongles on their computer-based cash registers—or NFC-equipped pads that plug into their existing mobile credit card processing machines—and Apple can really only deliver the consumer-facing part of the tech. This Euro experiment could be an early sign Visa's going to roll out the right hardware to stores in a big way this year, completing the plan. For now, trial participants need a dongle on their iPhone—but tomorrow? Probably not.

To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.