Ever since Google announced the Nexus S, I’ve been waiting to see what NFC can do for smartphones. This whole time, it’s seemed like an untapped well of potential, just waiting for its moment to hit the big time. After languishing for months, becoming years, this past summer I finally started to feel a change coming in the air, and started to hope that NFC’s day in the sun was finally about to arrive. At least a portion of my hope was vested in expectations that Apple would make the iPhone 5 NFC compatible. Now that the phone’s been announced with no such feature, will NFC still have the momentum it needs to take off, or is Apple’s indifference really going to hurt it?
NFC has weathered this past year or two under the scheming hands of the carriers and credit card companies, doing all they could to cripple or delay the wide availability of NFC until they could find a way to monetize it. Of course, NFC’s good for a whole heck of a lot more than mobile payments, but it quickly became clear that the technology would live or die based on its success as a payment system.
Google’s been doing an admirable job at side-stepping some of the quagmire that’s becoming Isis, and has made what I really feel is the best effort possible without stepping on too many toes. To its credit, we’ve seen Wallet usage really surge as of late, with August seeing usage double; if that trend continues, even if growth slows down a bit, NFC-based payments could really be on the cusp of hitting the mainstream.
Unlike many new phone features, which are wholly dependent on the manufacturer, NFC by means of mobile payments requires vast infrastructure on the retail side to support it. The consequence of this is twofold, in that it gives third-party companies an incentive to see the technology succeed, as well as takes some of the burden off the end-user in terms of driving the feature’s popularity.
What do I mean by that last bit? Look at video calls; the hardware is in place, with front-facing cameras on most devices, there’s software readily available, and data connections are the fastest they’ve ever been. Whether or not video calls ever become popular is now wholly on the backs of smartphone users themselves. With NFC, the power balance is shifted, and instead of two users needing to decide together to try out this new feature, you’ve got one of them actively recruiting others – that’s the point-of-sale terminal, probably soon to have an Isis logo on it, reminding you that you could be paying with your phone every time you step up to the register.
In a way, I think that takes some of the responsibility off Apple in its role towards deciding NFC’s fate. While a large Apple user base with access to NFC hardware would no doubt speed deployment of the matching retail infrastructure, it’s clearly not a requirement.
Where Apple could have really made a difference, though, and the fact that this isn’t happening still leaves me a bit unsure about how this whole mobile payment business will work out, would be either by getting on board with, or dictating its own standard. The details don’t matter so much as does the need for some unified system to exist. At this point, it may end up like the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD fight, where we just give users all the options and let the market sort it out, but I think that would be a mistake. There’s no good reason, short of some bruised egos or lighter moneybags, to not build co-existing payment systems that talk to each other and run on a shared backbone.
I suppose Apple not getting down with NFC is a setback, and may mean a continued slow growth to NFC adoption, rather than seeing one big spike. Still, the future is bright, Windows Phone 8 represents new avenues for NFC expansion, and we’re just going to keep seeing more and more hardware supporting the tech. NFC will thrive with or without Apple; all I’m wondering is if Apple will eventually get with the program at a future date, or stubbornly insist on going its own way.