The Future of NFC in Retail

Yesterday afternoon at Mobile World Congress, a panel gathered to discuss the opportunities and challenges facing NFC in the retail space presently and in the near future.

Before diving in to what was covered, there’s an important technical detail to discuss that is often not covered at the lab because it is a little too in-the-weeds technical, but is relevant in this context. When we tap a phone to read an NFC tag, the phone is acting as the reader and the tag is being read. In a mobile payments scenario, the Point Of Sale system (or in the UK, “The Till”, as was discussed today) is the reader and your phone is being read. Specifically, it is the secure element that is being read and more often than not that circuitry lives inside one’s SIM card. The carriers in particular are enthused about this arrangement since they control the SIM card and would enjoy having the future of payments standardize around their equipment.

In any case, SIM-based NFC is gaining momentum. There are now 80 million NFC-capable handsets out in the world and 40 million NFC SIMs in those handsets. So to recap, if an NFC-capable device has a regular SIM in it, then it can act as a reader but cannot itself be read, or at least cannot be used for payment.

The panel identified 4 core challenges facing the wide adoption of NFC:

  • There needs to be a robust ecosystem of services across multiple verticals to entice consumers to demand the technology of their providers
  • There need to be killer apps for the technology beyond payment. Transportation is a good example of a space that could take advantage of this.
  • The specification needs to be standardized globally, and the testing and certification process needs to be streamlined
  • There needs to be common iconography and a standard global customer journey. If that sounds difficult, consider that there are only 1 or 2 customer journeys that are standardized for plastic credit card usage globally. So there’s hope it can be achieved.

Retailers are not feeling pressure right now to adopt NFC-capable terminals. Consumers are not demanding it yet. One suggestion would be to add some kind of analytics layer, or some kind of mechanism of consumers tapping a check-in when they enter the store. The extra data stores could stand to learn about their customers could sweeten the pot enough for them to invest in new equipment.

Retailers are feeling some confusion right now because lots of vendors are trying to sell them lots of divergent payment systems and their POS cycles are too long to make a big investment in the wrong technology. They by and large need more certainty before they can bet on a particular technical standard.

One hope about increasing consumer demand for paying with their phones is the general theme that phones are increasingly becoming central to people’s lives in many other ways. The hope is that by 2014 or 2015, the demand to pay with one’s phone will organically grow out of this trend requiring less assistance from big industry programs.

A possible manifestation of NFC payment that could speed this process would be a mechanism where readers are built into laptops, and users can tap their phone to their laptop to pay for items. This solves a pain point for consumers, that of having to key in their credit card number to make a purchase online.

One strongly held view among many of the panelists was that payments will not be the killer app that launches NFC. There’s got to be something utilitarian that improves people’s lives in a more substantial way that gets them interested in the idea od tapping their phones. This may not even be a tap-your-phone-to-a-terminal type interaction. Perhaps it could be a peer-to-peer tapping experience like Android Beam or tapping a phone to tablet.

In terms of non-payment use cases for NFC, many general ideas were discussed. A retail expert suggested the ability to tap as you enter a store to load your loyalty account with special deals just for you. A town manager form the UK suggested civic and public interest uses of NFC out of home in the city centers might help spur adoption.

Car Makers And MNOs Square Off Over The Future

The organization behind Mobile World Congress, the GSMA, launched the Connected Car Forum as a way to bring together Auto Makers and Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to agree on standards and shape the future of telematics. At a 2-hour forum at this year’s show, a series of auto-makers and MNOs gave presentations about their hopes, dreams and competing visions for the space.

Kicking things off, the moderator expressed the goal that by 2015, 50% of cars sold would feature connectivity. By 2025, the hope would be that all new cars would ship with the capability of being connected. He outlined for areas of focus for his organization:

  • Enablers: Remotely provisioning service and establishing billing models
  • Operational: Improve tethering and defning next gen standards
  • Regulatory: Shape requirements around safety regulation
  • Business Development: Big Data, LTE in cars

First up to discuss his company’s efforts in the connected car space was Marcus Keith, the head of Audi’s program Audi Connect. He spotlighted current functionality being deployed in the A3 model, which includes Point of Interest search with voice control, music streaming and web radio, Facebook and Twitter. There are also more utilitarian features such as flight & train information, as well as fuel prices. A major focus for them is developing something they call Audi App control, which is the ability for them to wirelessly provision apps to an individual car that can be controlled through already existing in-dash buttons.

In a demo video of their voice control functionality, a driver says “Seafood” and is presented with a numbered list of seafood restaurants. The driver says “2” and it routes her to restaurant #2 on the list, which it then shows on Google Street View so the driver will recognize it upon her arrival.

A major pain point for them currently is managing the provisioning of SIM cards to the automobiles. There’s is a “built-in solution, which does not require a smartphone data plan to function. It is very onerous for them at the factory level to install different SIM cards depending on which geography a given car is being produced for. Also, if they need to switch network providers for price or contractual reasons,the cars have to be brought in for service.

Their wishlist for the MNOs (including the ones seated on the same panel) had at the top the ability to install remotely provisioned SIM cards that can be altered remotely. This way they could install the same SIM in every car leaving the plant, and then at the local level they can configure it wirelessly. Second on their wishlist would be the availability of an affordable flexible data package. This is of particular importance in Europe, where people are free to travel very easily across international borders, but can run up against steep roaming mobile fees. This needs to be transparent to drivers, Audi would argue.

To sweeten the pot for MNOs, Mr. Keith suggested having the MNOs think about the car purchase moment as an opportunity to upsell a consumer on a larger data plan. As long as the cost is not prohibitive for a flexible roaming data plan (which it is now), they could generate substantial additional revenue.

Lastly, there is a major need for split billing of data on a given car-borne SIM. The car maker would want to pay the data fees for diagnostics and basic service, while the customer should be on the hook for data usage related to infotainment. Currently splitting the payment on a single SIM in this manner is not supported by the MNOs.

Next Robert Jagler, the Director of Connectivity for Volvo presented his company’s vision. Theirs too is a “built-in” system, which has been evolving from “Volvo On Call” to the Sensus platform. The former was primarily about diagnostics and support, whereas the latter adds more robust infotainment services. In the Volvo video demo, a user launches and controls her Spotify account using her voice.

Mr. Jagler went on to highlight an interesting business model change posed by mobile. Traditionally, Volvo corporate interacts directly only with dealers, who in turn interact with customers. But with these types of services, Volvo would be establishing a direct relationship existing in parallel with the traditional dealer intermediated relationship.

BMW was up next, and Markus Kaindi presented their ConnectedDrive system. It includes the familiar set of infotainment and social media applications. He too expressed a strong desire for remote SIM management. Current SIM integration binds a car to a single service provider for the life of the vehicle. He also asked the MNOs to agree on such a standard as soon as possible. Mr. Kaindi described roaming charges on car services an “innovation killer”, as Big Data based applications will require LTE-like levels of service.

He went on to say “Automotive products must be able to communicate independently of their customers, devices, situation or location”, for example in an emergency situation.

While the preceding presenters discussed cars at the high end of the market, Corinne Lauer of Renault presented solutions for middle-market vehicles. The R-Link platform is built around a 7″ Android-based tablet embedded in the dash. It is modified to integrate with car information and controls. The R-Link Store is their app marketplace. Their apps include a fuel price application, news content from EuroNews, and a Yellow Pages type app for looking up businesses.

Pierre Masai from Toyota described the leading car maker’s current tethered “Touch & Go” solution that connects through a driver’s mobile device. He too stressed the difficulty of integrating connectivity into the car itself based on the current technology landscape. In the meantime they hope to work on smoother device pairing, perhaps replacing Bluetooth pairing with NFC.

In the face of all these calls for carrier cooperation, the panelists who were from European carriers stressed the level of difficulty involved. In effect they were being asked to rapidly agree on a new standard and roll it out, all in support of data plans that would be much cheaper per megabyte, and they would be forgoing the usual ransom they extract for data roaming. So suffice it to say, the MNOs represented were not especially excited about rushing to meet the calls of the car makers.

Which isn’t to say that this future wouldn’t happen, it’s just that they seemed to indicate this was a particularly thorny challenge for them, and that the auto makers would just have to be patient.

One exception to the car makers’ stance was presented by John Ellis from Ford. He is the Global Technologist and Head of the Ford Developer Program. Ford is firmly betting on the “brought in” approach rather than the “built-in” approach, embracing tethering rather than trying to escape it. Ford’s vision is to extend existing mobile applications into the car, and thus creating a more seamless experience. They are excited to be leaders in the space, and announced today that they are contributing AppLink to the open source GENIVI project. Ford is striving to be as developer friendly as possible, and since CES in January they have signed up over 2700 deveopers to their platform. They present a compelling opportunity for reaching an audience of drivers. BY 2015 there will be 14 million SYNC-equipped vehicles globally, with 10 million capable or equipped with AppLink.

The session today was very informative and interesting. It points to a still murky overall landscape, but lots of energy and innovation shaping the connected car of the future.

Qualcomm’s Internet Of Everything

One of the many interesting technologies presented here at Mobile World Congress by Qualcomm is their section they dubbed the Internet of Everything. They are promoting their recent experiments with the AllJoyn platform, that allows devices using their chips to communicate easily with eachother. The AllJoyn project is an open source project, but Qualcomm has dived head first into supporting it. It is meant to integrate with many different types of platforms, including Linux, Android and Windows Phone.

In an imagined use case, you would buy a coffee maker and take it home. It would have the applicable Qualcomm chipset in it and would be labelled as supporting AllJoyn. Through a to-be-determined process, you would pair it with your phone or tablet, and then be able to control it. You could remotely order it to start brewing, tell it how strong to make the coffee, and alert you when it’s done. The coffee maker could also then turn on the TV when it finishes brewing or pull up the New York Times website on your tablet.

A brand opportunity could be to build a branded app that interfaces with these appliances. So for instance, Folgers could sponsor a special Coffee-control app that does something special and on-brand for them.

There are no devices that support this framework out on the market currently, but apparently there will be a couple home appliances launching sometime this year which support AllJoyn. In the meantime Qualcomm continues to push innovation with this budding standard.

Samsung Continues To Expand Its Ecosystem

As expected Samsung did not announce a new phone today at Mobile World Congress, but instead teased a big announcement, presumably the Galaxy S4, coming on March 14th. It did however unveil a couple new products, including a new 8″ Galaxy tablet.

Another new product being showcased was their new HomeSync set-top box. Retailing for 299 Euros at launch, the box is touted as having three key features:

  • “Home Cloud” – You can tap your Samsung mobile device running Android Jelly Bean or higher to a paired HomeSync box and it will automatically copy over all your photos and videos for big screen viewing. The device includes a 1TB internal drive.
  • The Media Center – This functionality, which looks very much like the Google TV interface for selecting content, allows you to browse and buy video content for playback on your TV.
  • Screen Mirroring
  • – Wirelessly mirror whatever you see on your device screen up to your compatible Samsung TV

In keeping with another major theme of the week, Samsung showcased a couple NFC technologies. One was a soda vending machine that accepted an NFC tap for payment, though it was unclear what the underlying clearing mechanism was and whether it is meant to compete with or complement technologies such as Google Wallet or Isis. They also showed off a product called TecTiles, which are programmable NFC stickers not unlike the ones we saw from Sony at CES 2012. After you set up the tags, you can tap them to launch a particular app on your phone or change phone settings.

There was also an in-development 2nd Screen app tentatively called S Catch. Like Shazam or IntoNow it listens for video content audio and matches the content accordingly. It is envisioned that this could evolve into an effective platform for ads.

From the “not sure why it is at a mobile event” category, they also showed off a blood testing kit where you bleed into a modified CD with plastic grooves on it leading to test strips. Then you put it into this machine that looks like a photo printer and it spins the CD around for 20 minutes and produces a result.

The Way Forward For NFC Payments

Today in Hall 4 a conference session was held to discuss NFC and the future. One of the key panelists was Ryan Hughes of Isis, the NFC payments initiative backed by AT&T, Verizon and T-mobile. They have been running trials in Salt Lake City and Austin this past year and discussed some of their findings during the session.

One of the major hurdles they’ve encountered from a usability standpoint is educating consumers on how the technology works, or even that they have the capability in the first place. On the backend side of things, they’ve overcome a great deal of complexity building out their infrastructure. They baseline threshold they’ve set for themselves is for a customer to be able to freeze their Isis account with one call to their carrier if they lose their phone. It sounds simple enough but getting all of the different systems to talk to eachother such that this functionality is possible has taken a lot of doing.

Mr. Hughes showed a 30 second spot for Isis, or at least what one could be like once the product launches wide. In it, we see a woman jogging along and then stopping to pay for things with Isis, to the point where she comes home from her jog with a mountain of shopping bags. Of particular note during this video clip was that at one point she sees a deal on a flyer, taps the flyer to load the deal onto her account, and then redeems the deal at a store. This kind of seamless functionality could go a long way to getting consumers excited about the technology. That said, the really big spike in adoption spurred by this may not hit until NFC-enabled devices reach a price point such that rabid coupon clippers can afford them.

In the meantime, he stressed that Isis does not capture spend data, and actually doesn’t know for sure whether a given transaction had gone through. So they are not collecting data for retargeting, and have no plans to. That relationship is between the customer and the bank.

Bill Gajda, the head of mobile for Visa also spoke. He highlighted that 9 of the top 10 device makers are shipping NFC-enabled phones (no mention of the one holdout). Also, more positively, most new merchant Point Of Sale systems hitting the market today support contactless payments. This is a particularly critical development, since retailers tend to upgrade their equipment once every several years.

Mr. Gajda went on to make an announcement that an agreement had been reached for all nextgen Samsung smartphones will ship with Visa PayWave app for NFC payments.

He went on later in the session to map out the future of mobile payments in the developing world in particular. He speculated that emerging markets will likely leapfrog over traditional fixed line payment systems to mobile terminals that are multi-modal; they can accept card swipes, card taps or NFC taps. These types of devices, if they are affordable to merchants, could rapidly grow in markets that currently operate primarily in cash because of the cost and hassle of traditional POS solutions.

All of the speakers reflected on how for yeas it has seemed as though NFC was right around the corner, and it’s been slow going. They still have enormous faith in the technology and feel as though the industry is getting its ducks in a row for much larger adoption in the coming year.

FirefoxOS … Why?

“That’s probably our most frequently asked question”, said the Mozilla rep at the Firefox booth when I asked him why as an Android user I might prefer FirefoxOS.

For those who haven’t been keeping tabs on it, Mozilla is launching a new mobile device operating system in Q2. Although based on Linux like Android, FirefoxOS is stripped of much of the rest of the layers Google adds to Linux and is meant to be even more “open.”

It’s slated to ship in Q2 of this year in Eastern Europe and Latin America. It is free to carriers and runs on relatively cheap low-energy hardware. The demo unit I saw was by ascendant Chinese manufacturer ZTE. Mozilla itself is a not-for-profit organization – their only source of revenue for FirefoxOS is apparently small payments they will collect from Bing, Google and Yahoo for referring search traffic. The topic for their MWC keynote is “Connecting the next 2 billion”. So it would seem as though the primary technology it’s meant to replace isn’t Android or iPhone per se, but feature phones.

Apps on FirefoxOS are all based on HTML5, so essentially everything is a web app. They thus like to say that the platform can support “8 million apps”, referring to their estimate of there being roughly 8 million websites. From the home screen you can swipe over to a pane called “Dynamic App Search”. In the demo I saw, you can type in “U2” and it pulls up “apps” like YouTube and Soundcloud. By tapping an app from this screen, you can “sample” it, basically using a simplified version – effectively a mobile-optimized website. If you long-press on it, you can add it to your home screen and then use a richer full version of the HTML5 web app.

There’s a Firefox marketplace to help with app discovery, and Mozilla validates apps to ensure they are not malware. If cleared, these apps are given lower level access to the core phone APIs (camera, storage etc.)

But you (or a brand) can also make their own app market, invoking your own standards for apps and your own pricing structure and billing setup. It’s just like on the web, where different websites offer a variety of shopping and purchase experiences.

So FirefoxOS is indeed fundamentally different from Android (and iOS for that matter). It is more open and flexible, and is likely not onerous to code for since it is built deliberately around the HTML5 standard. I came away feeling like there very well could be a role for it in the larger mobile ecosystem, particularly in developing markets that are stepping up from widespread feature phone usage.