The value of mobile payments worldwide reached $235.4bn (£150.7bn) last year, a 44 per cent increase on 2012’s $163.1bn, according to Gartner. But at the same time, the company downgraded its forecast for NFC “due to disappointing adoption of NFC technology in all markets in 2012 and the fact that some high-profile services, such as Google Wallet and Isis, are struggling to gain traction".
Apple Pay looks like the break that NFC advocates have been waiting for. With the trend-setting company finally integrating the long-perfected technology into its devices, this could take ‘tap to pay’ in-store smartphone transactions truly mainstream.
With Apple Watch transactions promised in early 2015, the platform has already gone live for both in-app and in-store payments, with around 30 US retailers signed up for the latter, including McDonald’s, Bloomingdale’s, Walgreens and Staples.
The US’ biggest banks have also placed their weight behind this NFC solution, not least because Apple Pay still relies on the existence of banks to deliver its service. This cosy relationship did hit an early snag, however, when around 1,000 Bank of America transactions made using Apple‘s new mobile wallet solution were mistakenly duplicated, charging customers twice.
With all that in mind, we take a look at the other contenders in the NFC payments space to see whether Apple has it sewn up, or whether it's all a bit more complicated than that...
What is it? CurrentC (geddit?) is a QR code and PIN-based mobile payment solution being rolled out in the US next year. Users have to scan a QR code at the checkout, the merchant then scans a code that appears on their handset.
Who’s behind it? CurrentC is the work of the MCX consortium of big retail brands in the US, seeking to cut the fees they pay to credit card companies and ensure they get full visibility of their customers over other in-store payment providers.
The idea has been around since 2012, but in that time they have successfully managed to get some 110,000 retailers onboard pre-launch. They include: Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Gap, Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s and most major US petrol stations.
What's the catch? Since the brand was unveiled in September, the company has had the email addresses of its beta testers hacked, but it is understandably trying not to let this become a big issue. Some of MCX’s retail members have also been accused of not playing fair with Apple after shutting off NFC in their stores in anticipation of CurrentC’s arrival. However, the small print of MCX membership reveals that exclusivity is part of the terms of involvement.
What is it? Launched way back in 2011 with the promise that you could "say goodbye to even the biggest traditional wallets", Google Wallet was until last year limited to certain NFC-ready handsets and has yet to make it beyond US shores. Although Google hasn't released user figures, the Guardian reckons it has had around 20m downloads there, about a quarter of the installed base, with fewer than that using the app on a regular basis.
Like Apple Pay, Google has sought to become a digitised version of your regular wallet, welcoming partnerships with major financial services companies like Visa and Amex. The app combined NFC, a pre-paid card, digital payments in Google Play and third-party web payments, but after just two years, the company is shuttering the 'Buy with Google' API offered by participating retailers at the online checkout. The company also turned off NFC for loyalty redemption last year.
What's the catch? One reason Google Wallet has struggled is that the companies behind the carrier-backed Softcard payments system (see below) have been able to block Google Wallet payments in shops. Google's sole carrier partner Sprint is the only one not involved in this joint venture.
What is it? Softcard (formerly ISIS, until international events forced a swift rebrand in September) is an NFC-based, Android-only wallet currently available in different versions for more than 80 handsets in the US.
Who’s behind it? It’s a joint venture from AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, who have since 2012 been working to take advantage of their combined presence on more than 80 per cent of mobile handsets in the US.
The company has made big deals recently with McDonald’s and Subway, where it will join Google Wallet and Apple Pay as a way to ‘tap to pay’ for fast food. Pre-Apple Pay, the team was trying to devise a way to get around the lack of NFC on Apple handsets.
What's the catch? Except for the unfortunate associations of its original name, the most inauspicious omen for Softcard comes from its UK equivalent. Weve – the JV between the country’s largest mobile operators, EE, O2 and Vodafone – shelved its own NFC venture in September, just six months after going live with a pilot.
After leaving the team, one of Weve's founding executives Tony Moretta took to Twitter to say: "Operating system owners and big handset manufacturers now have the real power in the mobile world… Consumers are reliant on them and not mobile operators... Apple can deliver a consistent user experience on iPhones. Mobile operators were not prepared to and wanted to compete with each other."