French buy over half a million NFC handsets from Orange
But payments won't wait for the technology
MWC Orange has convinced half a million people in France to buy NFC handsets, and Visa has been busy showing off Olympic payments, but O2 Money isn't going to wait that long.
Orange is committed to a national rollout of NFC payments in France, and had been busy issuing NFC-capable SIMs to customers – even if they don't have an NFC handset – in readiness for when they do.
That's an expensive approach as NFC is not a trivial enhancement to a SIM: the company dismissed the five-times multiplier suggested by NFC Times  but it's probably not too wide of the mark. NFC Times points out that Turkcell is paying €4 a time for much the same capability from the same supplier, which doesn't sound like a lot until one sends out 10 million of them.
Visa is very publicly committed to deploying NFC payments at the Olympics, and has promised a Samsung handset to athletes to enable them to pay for stuff – at one point it was suggested the athletes' handsets might also be security keys, but that's still not confirmed and the demonstrations at Mobile World Congress were limited to electronic payments.
We've said several times that the Olympic project was impossible without a network operator, but now that Visa and Vodafone have hooked up that problem would seem to be resolved. But it will be interesting to see if the Olympics will allow Vodafone logos on the tills taking Visa cards, as Vodafone is not an Olympic sponsor.
O2's Money service is putting the software in place first, launching its peer-to-peer system within the next month or two. O2 Money will process payments addressed to mobile-phone numbers, in competition with the PingIt service launched by Barclays last month, though O2 Money is more more suitable for integration with NFC – even if it is less convenient for most of us.
PingIt links each registered mobile-phone number to a current account, and when one makes a payment the amount is deducted from the account linked to one's phone number, and credited to the account linked to the recipient's number. The process is akin to a debit card, though PingIt accounts are not "accounts" in the banking sense at all, and money never languishes within PingIt.
Not so with O2 Money, which links each mobile number to a stored cash value. That value can be topped up using any kind of credit card, and emptied into a current account in request, but between times it sloshes around Telefonica's coffers.
Not that Telefonica (owners of the O2 brand, and O2 Money) can spend any of that cash. O2 Money applied last November to become an electronic banking organisation, and will thus be regulated as a bank. But, realistically, cash lodged with O2 Money is probably just as safe as that stashed away with a High Street bank.
But that still leaves the question of why one would bother with O2 Money when PingIt provides the same functionality with less complexity? O2 Money hints at additional services, and will roll out the usual contrived scenarios which can only be resolved through its architecture, but it will be a difficult sell. Right now PingIt payments can only originate from a Barclays account, so if O2 Money can launch quickly then it will be able to claim unique ubiquity, for a while at least.
But it's NFC which is needed to sell O2 Money, as it will link the service into the real world much more effectively than peer-to-peer payments – which are fine for paying the plumber, but not really suitable when buying a bar of chocolate. But until Project Oscar (the UK version of ISIS) comes together, and someone pushes out NFC handsets as enthusiastically as Orange has done in France, O2 Money isn't going to be handling a great deal of money any time soon. ®