Web & communication software

Two Approaches to NFC Battle for French Hearts and Mobiles

Two competing approaches to equipping mobile phones with contactless communications capabilities vied for supporters at the Cartes exhibition in Paris this week. Either approach could turn phones into self-service electronic tour guides, travel tickets or secure payment terminals.

One half of the technology is already in widespread use. Contactless smartcards -- credit-card-sized RFID tags with an embedded cryptographic chip for authentication and secure data storage -- are already used for access control, public transport tickets (such as Navigo in Paris and Oyster in London) and electronic payment systems (such as Visa Paywave), and the same chips can be used to add intelligent tags to objects or buildings, allowing shoppers or tourists to view related information. The chips are powered by a radio signal from the reader.

But anyone who uses such cards for multiple applications will quickly find their pockets or wallet cluttered with pieces of plastic. One way to cut the clutter is to put those applications in a smartcard chip embedded in a mobile phone, connected to a small antenna.

A bonus of combining phone and contactless smartcard in this way is that the same antenna can communicate with other smartcard chips, for example to show a payment card's balance on the phone's screen, or display information about a tagged object. Combining this NFC (Near-Field Communications) technology with a cellular data connection, the phone can also be used to renew a transport pass online and load it into the smartcard.

While NFC technology is already a success in Japan, where it was championed by mobile network operator NTT DoCoMo, attempts to take it beyond the pilot stage in France and elsewhere in Europe have stalled as network operators, banks, stores and transit authorities wait for one another to make the first move. There are two main problems: Banks and transit authorities won't load their application on someone else's smartcard chip unless its security and integrity can be guaranteed. Meanwhile stores are unwilling to deploy the necessary infrastructure of readers and applications unless they can be sure that a substantial proportion of their customers will be able to use them.

The two approaches to combining NFC smartcard and phone shown at Cartes each had a solution to one of these problems..

Cityzi, proposed by the French Mobile Contactless Association (AFSCM), relies on the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module), a small smartcard already present in all GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phones, and links it with NFC circuitry embedded in the phone's case. The security and reliability of the smartcard chips is guaranteed by the mobile operators that issue them, and all applications will be vetted before installation in the chips, said Bruno Prexl, the association's head of communications. However, there are still only two NFC-compatible GSM phones on the market, the Nokia 6216 and the Samsung Player One NFC Version, he said.

The French mobile network operators Orange, SFR and Bouygues Telecom -- all three are members of the AFSCM -- began developing common standards for SIM-based NFC systems in 2006, and have so far completed contactless payment trials with a small number of users and stores in Caen and Strasbourg.

After giving away the phones participants needed in those trials, the operators are set to begin a larger project in the second quarter of 2010 in Nice, where they will sell NFC phones in regular stores. The idea is to test whether there is enough interest for NFC to be commercially viable.

For Prexl, the project will be a success if they can persuade 3,000 of Nice's 500,000 inhabitants to buy an NFC phone in the coming months. However, after ruling out all those who want an iPhone or BlackBerry and those who are simply not ready to replace their phone yet, that may still be an ambitious target.

Operators in other countries are already showing interest in AFSCM's approach, but it's vital that all the operators in a country work together if a critical mass of customers is to be reached, said Prexl.

However, it's not possible to reach a critical mass of customers -- 30 percent or more -- when just two of the hundreds of GSM phone models on sale are NFC-compatible, according to Franck Edme, business development manager at Twinlinx. A better approach is to take the Bluetooth wireless connection found in around 70 percent of those phones and use that to talk to an external NFC device.

That's what Twinlinx has done with MyMax, a self-adhesive patch containing a Bluetooth radio, a tiny battery, some NFC circuitry and one or more smartcard chips in a package 38 millimeters by 29 mm that can be stuck on almost any phone, solving the problem of adoption. To make payments or use public transport, the patch can be waved at a reader just as if it were a simple contactless card.

For tasks that require the phone's display or cellular connection, such as adding a new transport ticket to the card or using the patch as a contactless reader, the Bluetooth device must be turned on. The battery in the patch lasts long enough to complete a couple of hundred of such transactions, according to Twinlinx, and afterwards can be recharged using the same readers that power the contactless cards -- although the charging process takes hours rather than the milliseconds necessary to read a card.

The first sample patches are about 2.5 mm thick and will cost between €15 (US$22) and €20 for those willing to buy 10,000 when they go on sale next year. By 2011 Edme expects the patch to be under 2 mm thick and costing €10 in quantities of 100,000 or more.

Adding tickets to a transport card or using the patch as a card reader will require a special application on the phone. Twinlinx has developed the necessary APIs or driver software for Windows Mobile and Java-enabled phones, but it will be up to sponsors such as banks and transport authorities to distribute the patches and install and develop the applications for their customers -- which raises, once again, the other obstacle to adoption: no one will want a stack of incompatible patches on their phone, and Twinlinx is not in the business of guaranteeing the security and integrity of individual applications cohabiting on a single smartcard chip.

So would it make sense for the two teams, Twinlinx and AFSCM, to pool resources to win over users and distributors?

Not really, according to Prexl. "It's taken us three years to get our specifications in place, not just for the technology, but also the processes. Theirs are necessarily different, so we would have to reengineer all the processes to handle a different technology."

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