The Mobile Payment Wars: The Importance of BLE And NFC

mobile paymentsIn two of my earlier posts on mobile payments, I talked about disruptive innovations in the mobile payments landscape (“The Mobile Payment Wars: Is Your Bank Putting Its Best Foot Forward?”) and how the impending EMV deadlines could impact NFC adoption (The Mobile Payments Wars: Why Now is the Right Time to Adopt NFC). In this post, I will continue to dwell on the disruptive innovations in mobile payments technologies, focusing on the raging iBeacon versus NFC debate.

Around an year back, when Apple introduced the iBeacon technology in iOS7, iPhone enthusiasts were quick to write an obituary for NFC and other proximity payment systems. However, a deeper evaluation revealed that iBeacon was by no means an alternative to NFC. Yes, they are both wireless communication technologies and both enable in-store payments using the mobile device, but that’s where the similarity ends. It isn’t, in fact, a valid either-or debate, and the end user will actually benefit if the two technologies complement each other to deliver an enhanced in-store experience. Steve Gurley, President and CEO of Pyrim Technologies, illustrates the differences and similarities between the two technologies in exhaustive detail in his whitepaper on the BLE vs NFC debate. I will try to make a case for using multiple technologies within a single device through a simple illustration.

Let us assume that I enter a multi-brand apparel store, looking for a pair of jeans, armed with a device that supports Bluetooth Low Energy (or BLE, the underlying technology behind the iBeacon), NFC as well as barcode/QR code scanners. Such devices are not entirely uncommon now, with the Android 4.0 smartphones supporting BLE. Let us also assume that the retailer’s POS terminal is enabled with a BLE transmitter and also supports NFC protocols for proximity payments. As soon as my smartphone reaches the range of the BLE transmitter, the mobile wallet on my phone receives a notification from the retailer’s POS, announcing customized offers based on my previous interactions with the store. Scanning through the offers, I notice a 30% discount on X brand of jeans. I immediately select the offer and the coupon is saved on my mobile wallet. I then locate the selected pair from the shelf and tap the NFC tag. The wallet on my smartphone matches the item code with the saved coupon and generates the discounted amount payable. At the checkout counter, I select a card from my wallet and tap my phone to the retailer’s POS terminal to complete the transaction, all managed without any assistance from the retailer store’s personnel.

By the time I’m done shopping, I’m famished, and as soon as I step out of the store, I notice a printed advert for a new restaurant in the vicinity. I use the resident scanner on my smartphone to scan the QR code on the poster, which leads me to restaurant’s menu. I place my order and by the time I reach the restaurant, my lunch is ready.

This is just a simple example of how these seemingly competing technologies can actually collaborate to deliver an enhanced experience to the end user. It remains to be seen how soon this scenario becomes a reality.

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