The hardware works, and consumers worldwide think it's a cool idea. Still, near-field communication chips have made about zero progress morphing mobile phones into contactless payment tools.
Longtime financial industry backers of NFC technology concede that creating an entirely new payments system has been much harder, and taken much longer, than they had anticipated. But they remain convinced that the concept will eventually become a reality.
Only it will be later rather than sooner.
"We've been in a hard trough of disillusionment over the last several years," said Dave Wentker, a senior business leader with Visa Inc. and its head of proximity payments.
"It's been longer than I want to admit," he said. Though market researchers have issued plenty of optimistic reports in the past, promising the NFC phones would be common by now, "it's fair to say that early analyst projections were definitely overstated," he said.
Visa has long promoted the mobile wallet concept, in which phones store details for multiple payment accounts. Consumers can use the phone to select a specific account, then use the NFC components to make a contactless purchase at the point of sale. (NFC is the same technology used in contactless payment cards.)
But as the concept evolved, Wentker said, executives realized that NFC could also be useful in other industries — the same technology could enable people to gain access to offices, download information about specific products at a store or board airplanes.
For financial services groups, it was too much of a good thing. The more industries took an interest in NFC, the harder it was to develop a universal set of standards. Wentker said the NFC Forum, an industry group, is near the end of this process; by yearend it expects to begin a certification process for NFC standards, one of the final steps before mainstream NFC products could hit the market.
In the meantime, other mobile payments concepts are gaining traction, and some executives say they could be easier to deliver than NFC.
NFC "absolutely is not required," said Kevin Grieve, the chief executive of Mocapay Inc.
Mocapay, of Boulder, Colo., offers a retail payments system that lets people make purchases at the point of sale using text messages, a capability that comes standard in almost every phone.
In contrast, delivering NFC requires handset makers to install NFC chips, wireless carriers to make their networks compatible with the technology, financial companies to offer payments applications and for all three industries to cooperate — a tall order.
"It just doesn't make economic sense," Grieve said.
Text-based payments received a huge surge in public attention this month, after Americans used their phones to contribute more than $20 million for earthquake relief in Haiti in the first week after the disaster, noted Red Gillen, a senior banking analyst at the Boston research company Celent.
To be sure, consumers are using phones for mobile payments in tech-savvy markets like Japan and South Korea. But Gillen said those applications are all closed-loop systems, such as mass transit, rather than general-purpose credit or debit accounts. "I have not found one rollout of an open-loop mobile system anywhere in the world."
The longer NFC takes to find its place in the market, the less likely it is that it will find a place at all, he said. "If you keep talking about something for too long and don't do anything, then other technology is going to pass you by."
Another promising rival to NFC is bar codes that can be displayed on the screen of smart phones.
Starbucks Corp. began testing such a system in September at 16 stores in Silicon Valley and Seattle. Customers can download an app to an Apple Inc. iPhone and then enroll prepaid Starbucks cards. When they want to make a purchase, the app generates a bar-code image on the screen that can be read by the laser scanners at the point of sale.
This technology, developed by mFoundry Inc. of Sausalito, Calif., has advantages over NFC because it is software; neither phone makers nor carriers need to be involved to make it available. It essentially allows customers to put a closed-loop Starbucks prepaid card on the phone, said Drew Sievers, a co-founder of mFoundry and its chief executive.
(Starbucks would not comment on the test, which is continuing.)
Sievers said the players in the mobile phone market have been unable to coalesce around a strategy where everybody can profit from NFC. However, companies like Apple and Google Inc., which had no stake in mobile phones when the NFC idea was originally developed, have emerged as key players, and their business models are very different from those of handset makers like Nokia Corp.
And that gives them the ability to shake up the NFC market.
There is precedent for such disruption. Global positioning systems had been built into handsets for several years but were little used because the carriers restricted access to the chips. That changed when Apple opened up the application programming interface to developers, Sievers said. He speculated that Apple could also open up the NFC programming standards to the world. "All of a sudden, developers are coming up with all kinds of ideas how to use contactless."
Sievers agreed that NFC has applications beyond financial services. "NFC for payments is not the short-term killer app. NFC for identity and access, a wallet-based solution, is a big opportunity," he said. "There is massive business around helping people open doors, helping them board planes, or getting product information at Ikea or Six Flags."
Such uses also could help customers to get comfortable using the phone in a new way, by tapping it against a smart poster or similar device, Sievers said. "Then payments are a logical extension. The mistake that people make is assuming that payments have to be the tip of the spear, when I think it's more like the shaft."
James Anderson, MasterCard Inc.'s vice president of mobile product development, said two major NFC projects, in France and the United Kingdom, are inching closer to reality. Though he would not say when they could go live, both involve widespread, commercial availability of general-purpose, open-loop NFC payments and are backed by some of the biggest players in banking and wireless services in the region.
"This is not a technologically easy process, Anderson said, but "the train is definitely moving."
Wentker said that positioning bar codes or text messages or any other technology as a worldwide mobile payment format would require backers to go through the same years-long process as NFC. And while NFC is close to the end of that road, any new ideas would be just getting started.
"Fundamentally, it's a good idea, but getting it done takes a lot of work."