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Can't wait to bonk with Apple? Then try an Android phone

Blighty bonking tech updated – although not a lot

By Bill Ray, 24 Apr 2015

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.

Apple Watch — Guided Tour: Apple Pay

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.

Proximity payments

But the fact remains that despite filling in various forms, coming up with passwords and PIN numbers and downloading the Android app on to a suitably-equipped handset we were told to wait for our Companion Card to arrive by post.

There is a sticker too, which one can affix to the back of a mobile phone if one wishes to pretend to be part of the hip generation, but none of this is going to make use of the NFC radio built into the mobile phone handset.

What do you mean you don’t live in a city? Vodafone shows how to build a supportive interface

Apparently there is an NFC SIM, we just didn’t get one, but even then it’s going to be poor in comparison with Apple’s integrated experience.

SmartPass doesn’t want to be a prepaid credit card: like Apple Pay (and EE’s Cash On Tap) it wants to be a wallet in which other cards can be stored. Sadly, unlike Apple Pay, which picks up cards registered with iTunes, SmartPass can only store one payment card at the moment, so you have to charge up that account before it can be used.

You can add one other card, which should be interesting to Londoners at least:

You can now use your SmartPass to pay for travel on Transport for London services on Tube, Tram, buses, DLR and London Overground. Just tap it on the reader at the ticket barriers like you would with an Oyster card.

Which sounds wonderful, but the small print reveals just how much time one has to invest before that seamless nirvana can be reached.

Youíll need to register your SmartPass account details with Transport for London at: contactless.tfl.gov.uk. Youíll also need to link your SmartPass card details to your TfL account.

You can find these by selecting ëCard detailsí in the SmartPass app or SmartPass web portal at: vodafonesmartpass.com/log/uk. Please make sure you register with your SmartPass card details and not your Companion Card number, as these numbers are different.

Which goes a long way towards explaining why proximity payments haven’t taken off. We’ve shown time and time again that the process of paying by NFC is quick and convenient: tapping a card against a reader is faster than Chip & PIN and the transaction limit has (so far) proved an effective disincentive against fraud.

Tapping a phone handset (or an Apple Watch) is more secure, more convenient and more functional, but it is only a small part of the overall experience.

It has been said many times that Apple doesn’t make new products, it makes existing products, only better. Apple won’t improve on the payment experience – the bonking will remain the same, but Apple will create an intuitive and obvious sign-up and management process, smoothing the barrier to adoption to the point where it goes unnoticed.

Apple Pay has outperformed the competition in the USA and the Apple Watch will give it a new lease of life. It’s success isn’t down to technology – even Apple is following the NFC standard – but as a case study, it demonstrates how service providers need to focus in the end-to-end experience rather than the moments which look good at the press launch.

Apple’s vertical integration will ensure that Cupertino makes money on every transaction, while competitors struggle to divide up the pie. Hopefully that success will drive the competition to improve their user experience to the point where a bit of bonking is within the grasp of everyone and their wrist job. ®

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