Q. Is Apple Pay not the same thing as NFC? I keep reading stories about companies accepting Apple Pay that don’t mention non-Apple phones.
A. Apple Pay represents only one company’s brand name for payments made using a smartphone’s NFC (near field communication) feature, and it has plenty of competition.
But you wouldn’t guess that from such developments as JetBlue’s move last month to start taking via Apple Pay on board its planes. The New York-based airline’s blog post suggested this was an iOS only affair, specifying “Apple Pay-enabled iPhones.” Its press release called out the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, noting that Apple Watch support would follow later.
But the company behind the payment-processing system JetBlue flight attendants use to handle NFC purchases on iPad mini tablets says its setup can’t even see a difference between Apple Pay and other systems.
“They are simply identified as NFC payments and the corresponding credit card type (Visa, MasterCard, American Express, etc.),” eGate Solutions spokeswoman Karen Regan said in an e-mail.
JetBlue corporate-communications manager Tamara Young wrote that it was more a matter of testing and training.
“Our crewmember training and customer communications are based on Apple Pay as the payments option used for most NFC transactions,” she said. “As with any NFC technology, a payment with another device should work if you try to use it onboard, but we won’t be testing those technologies until after our rollout of iPad Mini tablets is complete later this year.”
The head of a major wireless-equipment testing firm said he’s yet to see anybody ship an NFC system that only worked with one brand of phone.
Brad Robbins, president of LitePoint, said in a conversation at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona that such a thing would be possible only if the manufacturer of a phone also tinkered with the NFC-reader hardware employed to take those payments.
You can still see compatibility problems crop up in design or manufacturing. For example, Robbins said placing the magnetic coil at the heart of a phone’s NFC circuitry too close to its battery “can end up detuning the NFC.”
And credit card issuers can choose whether particular cards will work in a mobile-wallet app. A look at Apple’s long list of participating issuers reveals many banks that support Apple Pay on their personal credit cards but not their comparable business offerings.
That, in turn, should explain why CVS and Rite Aid couldn’t just reprogram the NFC readers in their stores to refuse Apple Pay; they had to shut them off entirely to opt out of Apple’s version of the technology in a questionable attempt to stall its momentum and leave room for a future mobile-payments system called CurrentC.
(When I called out that strategy in a column elsewhere illustrated with a photo of my own Android phone being rejected at a CVS, I was deluged with reader comments accusing me of being an iPhone fanboy. I guess seeing “Apple” in a headline does funny things to people’s brains sometimes.)
Tip: NFC can trim transit costs
If your phone doesn’t even include NFC and you’re perfectly content swiping a credit card, you might wonder why anybody would bother with a different system that relies on $650 smartphones.
Security is one reason. Apple Pay and, to a lesser extent, competing NFC-payment systems mask your credit card number, ensuring that a later data breach can’t expose it to thieves.
But NFC can also save you money on a train or bus. As transit systems across the U.S. move away from paper farecards, tickets and passes, many of them are switching to plastic cards that use NFC or another short-range wireless technology, RFID.
That’s fine if you’re a regular rider, but occasional visitors either have to buy cards they won’t need later on or pay a premium to use paper cards.
But if your phone can make NFC payments and the transit system also directly supports NFC, you can pay with your phone by tapping it against an NFC target at a faregate or turnstile. That’s what I did in Chicago on a trip last September, saving myself a 50-cent surcharge on paper tickets the Chicago Transit Authority began levying after it launched its “Ventra” NFC-based system.
Your odds of using an NFC phone in this way today may be pretty low. But as more transit agencies make the switch — for example, Washington’s Metro is now testing mobile payments — they should only increase.
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