[Dave Birch] I’ve been running a masterclass at NFC World in Singapore, where the enthusiasm for all things NFC (including retail payments) was high. The two largest local mobile operators operators announced that they will pair up with the country’s two electronic-purse schemes to launch — as The Straits Times was quick to point out — incompatible trials of NFC. While the plans for the integration of national schemes in Singapore are in place and the migration to the Common Electronic Purse Specification for Singapore (CEPAS, which we’ve discussed before) is expected in 2010, as of today if you get a NETS phone it won’t worked on the buses and the EZ Link phone won’t work in road tolling. I mention this only as a reminder than technical interoperability and business interoperability are entirely different things, a recurring meme this week. More than one speaker said that getting banks and operators to work together continues to prove difficult, while one speaker said that their scheme had been a success precisely because it didn’t involve either banks or operators!

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Since we’ve been advising our clients that the impact of NFC in the payment space will be most disruptive on the acquire side, I particularly enjoyed the case study presented by RF Cyber. It concerned a programme in Breda, in the Netherlands, which used NFC phones and GPRS as terminals for social workers to read and top-up “evouchers” (MiFare cards) and showed how successfully the general-purpose phone plus software can replace multiple specialist terminals. A couple of coffee time discussions with different players in Asia-Pacific region confirmed that there is real potential in this space. Many banks are already issuing contactless or dual-interface card (Visa has 18 active issuers in the region already) and there must be literally millions of small traders who are potential buyers of phones that can acquire small transactions from those contactless cards.

From our clients’ perspectives, the most interesting presentations and discussions would have been those around over-the-air (OTA) loading and management of applications. Obviously, once you have your MasterCard Paypass application in your mobile phone, it’s attractive for you to go and use. But how it might get into your phone in the first place is complicated. Is the application pre-personalised and delivered in the SIM for later activation? Do you get it sent to you by your bank? Your operator? And it’s not just the payment application. One of the reasons why NFC is so attractive for retail e-payments is because it enables value-added services around payments (electronic loyalty, receipts and so on) and they too have to find their way to the phone and from the phone to point-of-sale (POS) as well. This NFC ecosystem is still evolving, and no-one really knows how it will settle down, so the presentations from players such as Vivotech, Gemalto, Venyon and Cassis were particularly worthwhile.

Despite the focus on mobile payments and transit, my view of the long-term impact of NFC was unchanged: in the long term, it will be the identity management functionality that changes the world, not the payment functionality. As has been discussed over on the Digital Identity blog, the NFC-equipped mobile phone can be an “identity card” that customers actually want, a point that I made in the closing keynote. If the phone becomes the cornerstone of a working identity infrastructure, then many other seemingly intractable problems — phishing, spam, privacy and others — collapse. And I have to say that given some of our experiences implementing a variety of NFC-based projects so far, this is not an unreasonable hope.

As far as I was concerned, the best presentation was from Zhou Song-Yi, the CTO of E-Tong Card Ltd. He spoke about the NFC payments launch in Xiamen in China. The reason why I enjoyed his presentation so much, and why he should be awarded a medal of the order of the future of payments (if such an order were to be established by a wise and magnanimous organisation) is because he was the only in person in the room — in fact, I think the only person who I have ever met — who has actually sold an NFC-equipped handset to an actual consumer. To the end of August 2007 they had sold 1,100 Nokia 6131i to consumers in China and equipped them with the NFC version of their E-Tong prepaid card for use in shops in Xiamen. Well done that man.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

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