Orange Cityzi NFC hands-on: Pocket-lint's pocket picked

If you'd asked me a week ago about using a mobile phone to pay for goods and services, I'd have said that the technology was promising, but that persuading people to use it was likely to prove tricky.

That was before I was robbed of all my real cash on a tram in Nice and spent 2 hours in a French police station waiting to report the crime.

Ironically, all of this took place during a demonstration hosted by Orange of the cashless system that it intends to incorporate on the next generation of telephone handsets equipped with NFC (near field communication) technology.

The mobile phone giant has been trialling the technology in Nice, in the south of France, for over a year, and is now gearing up for a wider European launch in Germany, Spain and the good old United Kingdom, “by 2012”.

In Nice, locals carrying mobile handsets fitted with NFC chips can use their phones to buy everything from transport tickets to tobacco, by simply touching their phone against a card reader. The phones can also be used to hire bicycles on the city's cycle hire scheme, or to scan special codes to provide up to the minute information on train timetables, or historic monuments.

NFC technology is similar to that used in London's wildly successful Oyster Card, but it has so far failed to make the leap to mobile devices for two reasons. Firstly, there was no common standard, and secondly, only Samsung was making NFC phones.

Orange claims that both problems will shortly be solved. The big five mobile telecom groups across Europe have now reached agreement on a common standard, under which users' information will be stored on the SIM card, rather than the main memory. NFC services will be provided inside a free app, designed to provide security. In France, this umbrella app is called Cityzi. Brand names for other European countries have yet to be agreed.

The idea is that if, say, Tesco wanted to use NFC, it might provide its Club Card services inside the app. If a user agrees to Tesco storing their data, their phone could not only store loyalty points and pay for the shopping, but could actively remind them what to buy, based on previous shopping trips. Or it could offer special discounts on new brands or products

Theft and fraudulent use of an NFC phone would be covered in the same way as credit card transactions, and because all valuable data is contained on the SIM card, it can easily be replaced by the mobile operator

For Orange and its telecom partners, this is the big push for NFC, and the window of opportunity for them to gain a march on their rivals is a small one, since Google with its Wallet service and Apple with the iPhone 5 and iTunes are both likely to be chasing a similar market.

So, back to Nice, where a small group of British journalists have been invited by Orange to try out Cityzi for themselves. Having purchased tram tickets using our phones (fares are added to the phone bill), we get on for just one stop, rubbing our phones over the onboard scanner to validate the journey.

Somewhere in between getting on and rubbing the phone, I feel a slight touch on my hip. My trouser pocket, home to 150 euros in cash, is now empty. My only suspect is a shifty-looking young woman standing in front of me, but I can hardly accuse her in public on a crowded tram. Then it's time to get off.

I am skint, and at a loss as to how to report stolen money in France. Eventually, someone recommends the commissariat de police, where I wait. And wait. The waiting room is a corridor with chairs on either side. So much sweat has been emitted within this clammy space that the walls themselves have body odour. After 2 hours in a 16-deep queue, I finally make a statement I’m sure my insurance company will ignore.  

As I sit brooding, running through alternative tram behaviour scenarios in my head (Why didn't you grab her? Why didn't you shout? Why didn't you photograph her? Why didn’t you just smash her in the face?) and watching victims traipse in and suspects file out, one thought recurs: if only I'd not brought cash. 

If I'd lost a phone, I'd report it and get it killed. No police. No report. No self-recrimination. It's cash's fault that I'm stuck in this sweaty French cop shop. From now on, money, it’s all over between us.

I think these new phones and I are going to get along very well after all.

What do you think of NFC? Would you rather use your phone to pay for things? Let us know in the comments below...



>