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Gemalto launches NFC software - world sees hardware

Blogosphere getting over-excited again

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Gemalto's new software platform can handle NFC payments on the SIM and is approved for MasterCard's PayPass - but that's less than half the NFC story no matter what you read elsewhere.

The new platform runs on Gemalto SIM chips, allowing a network operator to host a PayPass application on its SIM. Once such a SIM is inserted into a NFC-capable phone, supporting the SWP protocol, the network operator could offer MasterCard the ability to provision PayPass to that customer.

Pretty exciting stuff... possibly... but not nearly as exciting as "Gemalto’s New MasterCard PayPass SIM Will Let You Use Your Dumbphone to Make NFC Payments" which is how Gizmodo reported the story. To be fair to Gizmodo it was just parroting Engadget's "Gemalto bringing NFC payments to phones of any intelligence with MasterCard PayPass SIM", which is equally untrue: both headlines reflect a failure to understand the technology involved.

Near Field Communications comprises a radio technology operating at 13.56MHz and capable of being powered by induction from the reader, which is combined with a secure element used to store cryptographic keys and authentication details to manage mobile payments - pay-by-wave. The radio component is generally embedded in the handset, though it has been squeezed into a microSD card, while the location of the secure element remains the subject of fierce debate.

Phone manufacturers generally want it in the phone, banks like removable memory cards, while operators would prefer it stored in the SIM (and communicating over the Single Wire Protocol, SWP). It's that latter option that Gemalto's new software enables, which is unsurprising given that network operators are Gemalto's customers, and that NFC is seen as a great way to get operators to buy more expensive SIM chips.

The news here is that MasterCard has approved the software, but Gemalto still needs to encourage network operators to pay for the SIMs, and to deploy some NFC/SWP capable handsets to make use of them (the Nexus S and Nokia C7 both fit that specification, but RIM's new handsets might not). Even then the operators could choose to avoid the MasterCard route and push their own payment products instead: O2 Money and Orange Cash leap to mind.

There have been attempts to squeeze an NFC radio into a SIM, but it's very hard; even DeviceFidelity, which makes the NFC radio embedded in a mircoSD card, admits that it's a stop-gap technology. The future of NFC is smartphones, with radio antennas and induction loops built into the casing as already specified by Google, about to be specified by Microsoft and forthcoming from RIM - no matter what one reads on the internet. ®

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