Four years ago, your reporter paid for cookies with a mobile phone. Now, with Apple poised to bring some wrist action to bonking cash, we thought we’d take a look at how the competition has evolved.
We’ve been trying Vodafone SmartPass, and discovered that things haven’t improved much over the last four years.
In fact, Vodafone couldn’t help us buy cookies at all and all we got was a pre-paid credit card which didn’t work very well.
But even when it is in a phone, the process is horribly cumbersome, and only the most-determined of customers is going to choose to pay by bonk. At least, until Apple takes them in hand (later this year, for the UK).
Vodafone SmartPass is the operator’s response to Apple Pay, though that is in some ways unfair, as Vodafone has been working on proximity payments for a good deal longer than Apple.
The problem faced by Vodafone and the rest of the mobile industry is how to make money from the process. Credit card companies do very nicely out of enabling convenient payments, and the mobile operators have been struggling to find a business model which would let them do the same.
The commercial success of FeliCa – a platform which has provided pay-by-bonk in Japan for more than a decade – is down to the vertical business model, which enables the operator to make money. DoCoMo created FeliCa (with Sony) and used its market dominance to enforce adoption.
It then invested in BitWallet to manage payments and preinstalled the EDY payment card on every handset sold. DoCoMo even invested in a credit card company, just to put a tap into every part of the value chain. Vertical integration enabled DoCoMo to make money, while mandating standards ensures compatibility: a model which will serve Apple just as well as it served DoCoMo.
But everyone else is less lucky, so we’ve had years of alliances and exclusives, consortia and associations, none of which has produced anything more workable than the Orange QuickTap system launched in 2011.
SmartPass is Vodafone’s latest offering, enabled on Android handsets. The platform uses an NFC SIM, putting the (operator-controlled) secure element in the SIM and letting it communicate with the outside world over the Single Wire Protocol, using the NFC radio built into the handset.
At least, that’s the plan – the SmartPass FAQ makes no reference to phone payments, describing only the “companion card” and “tag”, and when we spoke to technical support we were told that the NFC SIM had been withdrawn from the UK following teething problems – though the press office was quick to deny any such thing.