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IPhone 4S users who bank at NatWest get NFC-enabled mobile payments

Apple’s iPhone may not feature near field communication technology but this is not stopping Visa Europe and two British banks from enabling tap-and-go payments for some users.

The British banks NatWest and RBS have teamed up with Visa Europe to pilot TouchPay, which uses an NFC-enabled protective cover on iPhone 4 and 4S phone models for mobile payments. Customers will be able to use TouchPay at McDonald’s, Subway, some Burger King, Krispy Kreme and Boots locations as well as at other retailers accepting contactless payments.

“Apple will inevitably adopt NFC on some version of their rollout,” said Gary Schwartz, CEO of Impact Mobile, Toronto, Canada, and author of “Fast Shopper, Slow Store.”

“However, this will be on their terms and may not be tied to a bricks-and mortar POS strategy – it will be tied to iTunes or their version of cloud base iShopping,” he said.

“In the mean time, there needs to be a bridge NFC solution for the expanding commerce market.”

NFC now
Apple was expected to include an NFC chip in the new iPhone 5 that launched last month. However, when the new phone was introduced without the technology, some thought this might mean the end for NFC while others wondered if Apple was missing an important opportunity.

While there are currently only a few smartphone models with NFC technology embedded in them, the number is growing. For example, the popular Samsung Galaxy SIII has NFC technology built in.

Apple may be waiting until NFC technology gains wider adoption or until a clear winner in the mobile payments space appears before placing any bets.

“It would be an expensive addition to the phone for the return offered by the small NFC terminal footprint,” said Brennan Hayden, vice president at Wireless Developer Agency, East Lansing, MI. “I think its absence says that Apple doesn’t consider contactless payments an essential experience for Apple customers at this time.”

However, given the popular of iPhones, it appears that other players in the payments space are waiting for Apple to make its move.

The TouchPay solution was designed to meet the needs of consumers who are looking for flexible and convenient ways to pay. It is initially available to the first 1,000 customers who sign up but will be rolled out to all bank customers with these devices in the near future.

The TouchPay service will enable users to pay for transactions of 20 British pounds or less at contactless point-of-sale terminals in retail locations. They will also be able to track their spending and manage their finances wherever they are.

The mobile payments equation
Visa Europe reports that interest in the program is very high, with more than 9,000 RBS customers registering to participate over a period of three days.

To use the service, bank customers attach the cover to their Apple iPhone 4 or iPhone4S and follow the on-screen instructions to download the TouchPay app from the Apple App Store.

The service uses the iCarte NFC-enabled phone cover.

Banks have been aggressively moving into mobile banking services for some time. However, with alternative payments solutions such as PayPal, Google Wallet and others growing as a result of mobile, banks are also looking for ways to insert themselves into the mobile payments equation.

By partnering with Visa, RBS and NatWest are making a good move because the credit card company has been active in mobile payments for some time and has a strong reputation with consumers in this area.

“Absent deep integration with the phone or phone service, and ubiquitous pay terminal support, this sort of product may be just a gimmick,” Mr. Hayden said. “It seems unlikely that the mass market will feel safe using an after-market add-on to a premium product like the iPhone for something as sensitive as payments.”

Final Take
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York