As of late there has been a lot of press coverage regarding HCE (Host Card Emulation), which in a nutshell allows devices to make NFC based mobile payments without needing the mobile operators secure element on the device. Both VISA and MasterCard are backing this new approach, in the hope that finally, they can kick start mobile payment offering with NFC, effectively locking merchants back into the card schemes for mobile. Google is also heavily behind HCE, because they need a way of getting their Wallet distributed on actual devices and networks. Google has already had a rocky time with NFC, supporting it, then ditching it, only to now attempt to bring it back to their offering through HCE.
There are many companies pinning their hopes to HCE, touting their solutions and the promise of mobile payments. But is HCE really the saviour of NFC based mobile payments, or is it simply the same old issues dressed up in a new party frock?
Secure NFC in the cloud
Effectively HCE allows secure details to be stored in the cloud. This makes a lot of sense if you want to bypass the mobile operators and effectively quash their mobile payment offerings (ISIS in the USA and WEAVE here in the UK). But does it actually add any value for the consumer or for the merchant? Is there actually any real difference? The answer is pretty much no.
If you are using the solution in its pure form, then your phone (no matter how it gets details, from the cloud or a secure element on the device) will broadcast card scheme data to the merchant’s terminal. No matter what that data is, it is being broadcast and is data that is used to complete the payment. This is actually very powerful if you are looking for mass distribution, potentially. I say potentially because though there are businesses accepting NFC contactless payments, they are still small in their numbers. In addition, the merchant still has to opt into accepting contactless payments – and it is worth noting that contactless payments in pure card form are not the same as contactless payments using your mobile phone. In many cases the “handshake” is different requiring businesses to invest yet again in contactless for mobile phone. Do we really think SME owners will continue to invest in technology for zero benefit to their business?
So does HCE make any difference here? No…
HCE and NFC are only available on Android based devices (and not all of them). Though Windows Phone 8 supports NFC, it is locked very much into the Secure Elements, so no HCE support there. If we then look at the most successful mobile smartphone out there (iPhone), we should note no NFC or HCE support (and it doesn’t look like there ever will be). So with this in mind, you are only available to customers on 1 of the top 3 mobile platforms. Though many will say that Android has the lion share in the mobile world, it’s worth noting that they are a distant third in their share regarding mobile web being used. This indicates that the majority of Android users are not embracing all the features on their smartphone, and as such, these probably are the same users that will not look to be early adopters of any form of mobile payment.
Essentially, the consumer base that could potentially look to HCE and NFC payments is quite limited.
The customer experience
Many articles will talk about adding value into the mobile phone payment option, but when we do this, any distribution advantages you may have due to card schemes and contactless being accepted vanishes. You may ask why, but the fact is that the acquiring banks (the people who actually operate those contactless card devices) will not be accepting data regarding a discount, or loyalty scheme. To be blunt, they simply can’t accept that data as it’s meaningless to VISA, MasterCard, the Acquiring bank and the customers bank. So in order to accept that data, the mobile payment provider needs to sign the merchant up to their particular version of mobile payments, in order for them to enjoy any added value. Therefore the argument for NFC as an open loop environment using card scheme rails doesn’t fly.
So what does HCE bring my customers in terms of experience over what they have currently with a card. The answer is nothing, unless I buy into a particular vision of HCE by a particular company, and if I am going to do that, I may as well look at alternative payment solutions, that save my business money.
Payment processing costs
Do these decrease with HCE? Nope, the poor old merchant is still paying full wack for their card processing, and maybe in some situations more. They will be paying for more expensive NFC based infrastructure on a monthly basis too, so mobile is now costing businesses more to accept. That’s simply not good news for any business owner.
HCE a game changer? Nope…
To make mobile attractive to businesses it must be cheaper for businesses to run, maintain and it must bring some added value to their business. It also needs to be available to the vast majority of my customers, so that means available to the top 3 mobile operating systems (Android, iOS, Windows Phone). HCE simply doesn’t stack up on any of these basic business needs. It’s more expensive and provides no added value.
Mobile will no doubt be a game changer in the payments world, but it will not be changed by solutions that look to the same old rails dressed up in a pretty new mobile dress. It will be companies that offer real added value through mobile services, and companies that deliver savings back to businesses with large reductions in payment processing fees.
So if you are a small business, look to see what alternative payment solutions out there provide you with the added value and services you want to move your company forward, helping you increase sales and increase your profitability? It’s an exciting time, and a chance for businesses to break away from the old and embrace the new more productive world.