If NFC isn't dead, it's fair to describe it as not feeling very well.
The mobile payments industry floats on oceans of hype and buoyed expectations as any industry in its infancy must. NFC, long the poster child for mobile payments, has suffered as key players brought products to the plate that swung and missed, or at best connected but went foul. There are no North American NFC home runs, a winner that delighted consumers and merchants alike by providing them services that made their interactions demonstrably better, faster or cheaper.
So is any of this the fault of NFC? Sure, NFC is expensive to deploy. And there hasn't exactly been a flood of handsets that support NFC, so most merchants and consumers can't currently use NFC without upgrading their hardware.
But the hardware issues pale by comparison to the complete logjam that is the commercial NFC payments landscape at the moment. Big players like Google have launched pioneering NFC services that, while noble in their aims and even their execution, have failed to capture the public's imagination. Isis, perhaps the most ambitious NFC project of them all, has had to scale back its aims and announced a delay that may move its trials into 2013.
Probably most troubling for the NFC faithful, Apple has been Hamlet-like in doing the Hokey-Pokey with payments, both one foot in with its Passbook, and one foot out with the arrival of an iPhone 5 without NFC.
Even worse, as Mobile Payments Today has reported, Walmart, the undisputed King of American retail, has evaluated NFC and issued a response of "meh."
Most of these commercial problems amount to one thing: a failure of NFC and mobile payments to drive enough value to elbow its way into a payments model which has been set in stone for nearly 50 years; a model where incumbents are clinging to their positions and resisting sharing their revenue with new players. And they don't have a compelling business case for doing it all themselves.
We are, in a word, stuck.
So we have a great technology in NFC that works as advertised. It's a solution in search of a problem. What will it take to finally break through? It may be that NFC comes in literally through the back door.
One great application that NFC can address today is building access. Using phone-based NFC as a way to gain access to your work or home is simple and straightforward and leaders in the access control industry are embracing NFC mobile phones as a feature-rich way for them to create, update and delete subscriber identities.
And the business case in this segment is also more straightforward, as all it takes is the access control company to move forward so their customers, usually corporations and government, can then decide that NFC mobile phones should be a part of how they manage their employees. A similar compelling case can be made for transit as a closed ecosystem that offers clear benefits for issuers and end users to deploy NFC.
Once NFC devices are in customer hands for other uses it will be far easier to adapt NFC for payments. If this view is correct, it might mean that the march of NFC may be slower and more rocky than anticipated. But NFC still has compelling value across multiple applications which other technologies currently can't match.