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Isis joins battle for control of your wallet

Operators vs banks in NFC cash-snatch death match

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AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon have teamed up to create Isis - a pay-by-NFC architecture that places the network operators at its centre, though it may already be too late.

Isis has a logo, and is backed by Barclaycard, but will have to pit itself against Visa, which has already teamed up with Bank Of America, Wells Fargo and US Bancorp to run New York trials in conjunction with Mastercard. The sides have been joined and battle commences.

At stake is ownership of the secure element, the chip at the centre of the NFC architecture that stores the cryptographic keys necessary for the whole thing to work. That chip can only have one manager – the operators think it should be them – ideally with the secure element embedded in the SIM, while Visa and the banks prefer a removable microSD Card that places them firmly in control.

Both approaches allow the customer some flexibility to move between handsets, though using the SIM is obviously more intuitive, but both approaches also require cooperation from the handset manufacturers who ultimately decide to where the NFC hardware will connect.

Putting the element in one place doesn't preclude the competition; if Isis becomes the standard then Visa and Mastercard will just have to ask Isis (and the operators behind it) nicely and port their payment applications (PayWave and PayPass respectively) to the Isis infrastructure. But if they win and retain control of the microSD, then Barclaycard will have to come running to them.

Right now Isis is little more than a press release so it's hard to judge how successful it will be. Operators are very good at producing reams of documentation, but with the competition already running trials, and new players including Google and Apple on the horizon, it will take more than pretty logos and some aspirational animations to retain control of the customer's wallet. ®

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