PARIS - The start-up technology vendor Zenius Solutions Inc. has developed a way to add contactless payment capabilities to smart phones that links the transaction functions to the mobile devices' operating systems.
A number of financial companies have tested phones with built-in near-field communication chips that deliver contactless payment capabilities, but very few of these devices are available for sale.
As a bridge, some companies are selling stickers that have contactless payment features and are commonly attached to phones, but do not actually communicate with the mobile devices.
Zenius' chief technology officer, Ming-Li Liu, called the product an "NFC add-on." The Redding, Calif., company demonstrated the payment tool this week at the Cartes and Identification conference here.
The product has two components. One part fits into a phone's existing SIM card slots and is linked by a flexible cable to another section that includes the NFC chip and antenna, and which can be attached to the outside of the phone. Zenius developed the software and the hardware comes from Bladox SRO of the Czech Republic.
The setup enables users to make contactless payments at the point of sale and manage their various card accounts through a mobile wallet application that can be installed on smart phones such as Apple Inc.'s iPhone or Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry devices.
Liu said the system could appeal to people who are already using smart phones and might not be interested in replacing them when new models are available with built-in NFC chips.
"If you have a BlackBerry or iPhone, you are not going to switch to another phone," Liu said.
Though NFC-ready phones are rare now, some observers said that Nokia Corp. and other handset makers could make the feature more common next year.
"We're almost there," said Jeremy Belostock, Nokia's head of NFC.
Many of the previous tests of NFC mobile payments have used Nokia phones. The paucity of other vendors selling similar handsets, and skepticism about the business model for the technology, have hampered progress.
James Davlouros, a MasterCard Inc. vice president and business leader who oversees its mobile payment efforts in Europe, said the Purchase, N.Y., company is talking with mobile handset vendors besides Nokia about offering "a few more [NFC] handsets" to consumers. Davlouros would not name the vendors, and he tempered his optimism by saying that the number of handsets would remain "limited" for the time being.
Philippe Martineau, the executive vice president for NFC at Inside Contactless, a French technology company, said it has been about seven years since the NFC concept emerged, and that new technologies typically have a "seven-year gap" between concept and commercial rollouts.
Kai Grassie, a group senior vice president for the German card vendor Giesecke & Devrient GmbH, said that the gap sometimes reaches 10 to 15 years but that he has seen enough activity to be optimistic that NFC-ready phones will be introduced in the next 12 to 24 months.
Koichi Tagawa, the chairman of the NFC Forum, a trade group that provides NFC technical specifications, also was optimistic that the technology soon will move from the test and pilot phase. Tagawa, who also oversees contactless payment efforts for Sony Corp., said the forum has 11 NFC specifications, all designed to promote interoperability among contactless devices.
However, he acknowledged that early hopes about NFC often have not been fulfilled, and that developing the NFC specifications "took longer than intended."
A test under way in Bangalore, India, shows that offering consumers incentives such as discounts is essential to promoting contactless technology, Davlouros said.
Citigroup Inc. kicked off the test in July, and about 5,000 consumers in Bangalore can now make contactless purchases at approximately 400 merchants. Participants receive discounts at some retailers and other loyalty incentives.
Davlouros said the test could stretch into the first quarter of 2010 and that he hopes it leads to a broad rollout of the service in India. MasterCard is "not interested in more pilots unless the focus is eventual commercialization," he said.