Mobile contactless payments in Europe: reality beyond the NFC hype

Hardly a week goes by without a press article or conference reporting how ubiquitous mobile payment services and their adoption are in Japan. Forrester decided to put some figures on the so-called Japanese mass-market reality and to understand why Japan is the declared leader in mobile contactless payment services. What lessons can others learn from the Japanese market and to what extent do they apply to Europe?

There are several reasons why Japan is ahead of the curve among which the role of Felica Networks in the value chain and the scale merchants could benefit from (Sony and DoCoMo invested several dozens of million euros to make sure that retailers and points of sale had the technology to read the chipsets embedded in mobile devices), the loosening of Japan's financial regulations (making it possible for non-banks to become financial services players), operators' role in paving the way for mass market adoption of mobile Internet and higher usage of mobile services (fostering the natural expansion of mobile payments).

Despite this, reality is that the mobile contactless market in Japan is only reaching critical mass, not mass-market adoption. In Europe, conditions differ quite a lot and even if Near-Field Technology is likely to play a key role in the future, the technology is only entering the pre-commercial era.

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Plastic Logic + AT&T: Cellular Network Is Table Stakes To Compete With Kindle

At 8am this morning Plastic Logic announced that it will be partnering with AT&T to provide wireless 3G connectivity on its eReader device, expected out in Q1 2010. This announcement follows the news of Barnes & Noble's partnership with the device-maker.

No doubt, having big brands like B&N and AT&T on its partnership roster helps Plastic Logic establish credibility in a market where it is an unknown, competing against mammoths like Amazon and Sony. And the announcements help inspire confidence that the device will actually get to market--an assumption that can't be taken for granted given the pre-launch financial failure of other eReader competitors like Polymer Vision.

We think cellular connectivity--not just wifi, which isn't available everywhere--is table-stakes for Plastic Logic (and Barnes & Noble) to have any hope of competing with Amazon. Consumers value the seamless connectivity of the Kindle's Whispernet service, which lets them download a book in 60 seconds using Sprint's network. Especially since Plastic Logic will be focused on newspapers (USA Today and The Financial Times are also partners), having the device be able to connect and refresh content anytime, anywhere, will be crucial for its success.

What we still don't know: the financial terms of the deal. Will it be a wholesale model with a per-user monthly fee, like Sprint's arrangement with Amazon? Or will consumers be charged directly for a monthly data plan, like AT&T does for Apple iPhones? Will AT&T get a cut of every transaction, or just a per-user fee?

What we do know is that the big remaining competitor in the US mobile market, Verizon/Vodafone, won't be able to sit this one out. Our prediction: We'll see them partner up with Sony, First Paper, or both, before the end of the year.

Polymer Vision: An eReader Manufacturer Bankrupt, No Surprise

A little birdie told me several weeks ago that Polymer Vision, maker of the "rollable" pocket-size Readius, would be filing for bankruptcy, and lo and behold, they did, as reported on July 15 by the Hampshire Chronicle, the local paper of Millbrook, England, where the company was based. The story has since been picked up by Engadget, and here's our two cents.

First, a bit of background: Royal Philips Electronics was one of the early investors in E Ink, which makes the displays for nearly all eReaders on the market today. Deciding that eReaders were not a core business focus, in 2005 Philips spun off iRex Technologies, a company that has since seen modest success with its B2B sales model for eReaders, and spun off Polymer Vision in 2006. Polymer Vision was planning to manufacture its own displays, and use an ODM in Asia for the device manufacturing, with the goal of dominating a new market for pocket-sized eReaders.

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The "magic blue circle"

I recently came accross this quote in the Financial Times from the former Vodafone CEO on November 19, 2007: "The simple fact that we have the customer and billing relationship is a hugely powerful thing that nobody can take away from us". Would you still agree with this operator statement written in golden letters at the forefront of any "smart pipe" operator strategy?

Since then, new entrants such as Google and Apple have shaken up the value chain. I have two examples in mind showcasing the tectonic shifts happening: 1) Apple imposing a direct billing relationship via iTunes/App store and 2) Google managing to create its own location data base (via cell ID or Skyhook's wireless technology) without relying on operators' network.

As early as in July 2007 (before the 3G iPhone version embedding a GPS chip), Google Maps on iPhone (the combo of Google's and Apple's strengths) started offering the "magic blue circle" experience. You could benefit from a compelling user experience like never before, with instant localization without any GPS chipset. Of course, the accuracy may not be good enough if you are looking for a pure turn-by-turn navigation, but honestly this is so simple and useful if as a pedestrian you're looking at the streets nearby.

PicGoogleMaps

Location is at the very heart of the mobile value proposition.

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