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PARIS—Could 2010 see Near Field Communication finally cross the line from seemingly endless tests to at least limited rollouts? The chances are decent, payment industry observers noted here Thursday at the Cartes & Identification trade show. "We're almost there," Jeremy Belostock, head of NFC for Finland-based mobile handset maker Nokia Corp., says of the contactless-payment and downloading technology, which has seen dozens of tests around the world in recent years but no significant rollouts. Those tests generally have involved handsets from Nokia, and the lack of other vendors selling NFC-enabled handsets, combined with questions about the business model for the technology, have hampered progress. Koichi Tagawa, chairman of the NFC Forum, a United States-based advocacy group that offers free downloads of NFC-technical specifications, also was optimistic the technology soon will move beyond the test and pilot phase. Tagawa, who also oversees contactless-payment efforts for Japan-based Sony Corp., says the forum has 11 NFC specifications, all designed to promote interoperability among contactless devices. NFC has suffered from excessive optimism in recent years. Analysts have offered cheery predictions about the upcoming bounty of NFC handsets certain to flood the market, only to see the forecasts proven wrong. Card networks and industry observers have spent the past few years talking up the inevitably of contactless mobile payments as more consumers realized the convenience of having one device, the mobile phone, all but replace wallets and purses weighed down with cards, coins and cash. Observers at Cartes acknowledged that early hopes about NFC often outpaced reality. For instance, Tagawa said that progress on the NFC specifications "took longer than intended." And Jay Chinnadorai, founder of United Kingdom-based consultancy Sumtotal, said years of trials and debate over NFC technical standards and business models have left some in the industry wondering, "are we there yet?" It is "no surprise we seem to going around the circles," he added. However, Philippe Martineau, executive vice president, NFC business line, for France-based Inside Contactless, takes confidence in the seven years or so that have elapsed since NFC emerged as a concept. New technologies typically require a "seven-year gap" between concept and commercial rollouts, he said. Though Kai Grassie, group senior vice president for Germany-based card vendor Giesecke & Devrient GmbH, put that gap at 10 to 15 years, he, too, has seen enough activity to be optimistic that NFC will experience rollouts within the next 12 to 24 months. James Davlouros, the vice president and business leader at MasterCard Worldwide who oversees the card network's mobile-payment efforts in Europe, offered evidence of the technology's crawl toward rollout. The card network in talking with mobile-handset vendors beyond Nokia about offering "a few more [NFC] handsets" so consumers could more easily acquire them, he said. Davlouros would not name those vendors, though he did temper the optimism just a bit, suggesting the number of handsets would remain "limited" for the time being. Still, even a limited base could support notable commercial rollouts, he said. Davlouros also noted the French city of Nice is set for what officials there have called "precommercial" launches of the technology for transit and retail payments, another sign the technology soon may take flight.

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