The Samsung Galaxy S4 has arrived, debuting yesterday at what can charitably be described as a very different kind of product launch, which involved dance numbers and sketch comedy. The phone itself cannot be described as being greatly different from the Galaxy S3, but the new device does include a couple of features that will make it easier for users to adopt and use mobile payments.
As expected, the S4 includes NFC capabilities and will be the first Samsung device to come pre-loaded with the Visa payWave applet in the embedded secure element. (The SE is where the phone securely stores payment account information.) That means users will have mobile payment capabilities the moment they unbox their devices. They will still have to load payment credentials into the wallet, but the preloaded app eliminates the need to download a mobile wallet application.
Additionally, as a part of the agreement between Visa and Samsung that was announced at Mobile World Congress, issuers, network operators and financial institutions will be able to use Visa's provisioning services to load accounts to the SE.
While the news was expected that Visa's applet would be included in the device, one interesting detail about the SE is that Visa won't have exclusive access to it for long. In the press release for the new devices, Samsung said that "more payment applets from multiple brands are planned to be preloaded into the embedded secure element in the coming months."
The S4 will also support SIM-based secure elements as well.
Along with NFC payment capabilities, the device includes a new, and pretty innovative, take on the standard, old-school 1-D barcode. It's called mobeam technology and it addresses some of the issues facing barcodes as a mobile payment technology, and mobile payments in general.
The problem with traditional barcodes is that when they are rendered on a smartphone, screen glare can prevent a scanner from reading them correctly. Mobeam technology converts the barcode to pulses of light that the scanner interprets as the barcode, thus no issue with glare. Any of the estimated 165 million laser scanners used by retailers around the world can "read" barcodes presented using mobeam. (A video from mobeam explaining the technology is below.)
And that may solve another problem facing mobile payments: merchant adoption of new technology. To accept NFC payments — or even 2-D barcodes like those used by Starbucks — retailers will have to make an investment in new point-of-sale terminals. Mobeam works with the scanners already in use by many grocery stores, convenience stores and retailers.
"Mobeam's vision is simple: to make mobile commerce work with existing point of sale technology," said Chris Sellers, CEO of mobeam, in a statement. "Making cutting-edge smartphones work with barcodes might not sound sexy, but it means consumers now have the ability to beam items such as coupons, loyalty cards, gift cards and event tickets at millions of locations — something that was previously impossible. Barcodes are universal and won't be replaced anytime soon, meaning retailers don't need to upgrade their POS systems. The mobile industry now has a commerce technology that can work everywhere, and the world will see it first on the Samsung Galaxy S4."
There are no apps that use mobeam — yet. But it's a just matter of time before developers begin integrating it. And the new Galaxy phone includes Samsung's new mobile wallet app that will allow app developers to store their coupons, loyalty cards and tickets in one place on Samsung phones. The ability to turn those loyalty cards and coupons into a scannable barcode may prove to be a strong incentive to developers to use the technology.
The new Galaxy S4 is scheduled to start shipping in April.