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Sony brings Samsung and NXP into the FeliCa fold

NFC-F: It'll bonk just about anything

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MWC 2012 Japan's FeliCa system will soon boast NFC alongside the existing proximity system, using chips from Samsung and NXP to provide pay-by-bonk for Japanese abroad and gaijin alike.

Japanese companies want to be able to process NFC payments, made with a tap of the phone, just like everyone else, but while in the rest of the world the nascent industry is struggling to explain the advantage of paying by tap, in Japan the problem is making NFC backwards-compatible with the existing infrastructure which has been doing that for more than a decade, with Sony's solution being to pack two electronic purses into each phone handset.

The FeliCa system has been providing bonk-based services domestically since 1997, but electronic payments came in 2001 with the launch of the Edy electronic wallet which is closest to how we now imagine NFC to work. Japan was able to take such a lead thanks to the vertically-integrated DoCoMo, who could turn a profit by owning a significant share in every part of the value chain, but despite that DoCoMo failed to push the standard abroad (Edy stands for euro, dollar and yen, indicating its international aspirations).

DoCoMo still owns 38 per cent of FeliCa, the standard which underlines Edy and other proximity systems in Japan, but Sony owns 57 per cent and neither party is prepared let Japan remain an isolated platform even if it is the leading one (the remaining 5 per cent of FeliCa belongs to the largest train operator in Japan, JR-EAST, which probably don't care either way). So Sony has signed up Samsung and NXP to make a chip set which will support both NFC and FeliCa in the same device.

That's less a matter of integration and more a matter of parallel systems – the FeliCa platform has its own secure element (embedded in the handset), while Sony is absolute that NFC secure elements should go in the SIM, under the control of the network operator (unlike Google Wallet). So in Japan "NFC-F" handsets will keep FeliCa and NFC applications entirely separated, with the sharing is limited to the radio stack and the antenna. Even then there won't be any chips until next year, with dual-bonk handsets following some time afterwards, but Japan's entry into the NFC business still shouldn't be taken lightly.

While we get excited about tapping phones together to exchange business cards, or checking into Foursquare without having to run an app, millions of Japanese are paying by bonk every day. They're unlocking (luxury) apartments, and downloading their boarding cards on the way to the airport – and not just to show that it's possible, they've been doing this for years.

What that means is that Japanese developers have hammered out the business models around who pays whom for what, and created interfaces which allow the user to control the (secured) applications which have been installed. Compared to that, the technology behind NFC, and FeliCa, is trivial, and if those skills prove exportable (cultural mores permitting) then Japanese companies such as Sony could be well-placed to make money telling people around the world how to make use of NFC, which is rather the point. ®

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