Electronic Payments & Graceful Degradation

Tue, Feb 7, 2012 3-minute read

Theres a lot of hype around NFC & mobile payments going around, analyst are predicting it as the next big thing and rumour mills are churning out stories about the iPhone 5 having NFC faster than a Foxconn plant on double time.

I’m still quite skeptical about using my phone for payment, is carrying a card such a hassle? in fact one of my phone cases even has a card slot in the front to hold a card. Anyway regardless of do we need it I had an interesting thought the other day, Now I like my gadgets, I went through a lot of hassle to get LloydsTSB to give me a contactless debit card because I wanted to play with it, I’ve even got google wallet running on my Nexus S so I can say I’ve used both of these in the wild.

I quite like my contactless debit card, aside from being able to confuse shop assistants it actually has one feature I really like, most of the payment machines don’t insist on giving a me a stupid little slip of paper when I use it, so whenever possible I use the card that way.

Now last week I was at Paddington station heading home and had missed lunch so I popped into McDonalds for a quick ‘snack’ one of the great things about McDonalds was I can use my contactless card, and their workflow is setup such that it does actually make it faster than Chip & Pin or Cash, no wasted time spending 2 mins telling the assistant I was to pay by contactless so she’ll need to type in the amount before i enter the card.

Anyway I ordered my food and then went to touch the card, “Oh thats not working you’ll need to use the chip” said the girl behind the till, no problem these things happen stuff breaks and I just reverted to the old fashioned way of paying.

That got me thinking, what if I had been using my phone? My Contactless card actually has 4 ways I can use it to pay, there’s the new fangled NFC, there’s Chip & Pin, Its got a magnetic stripe on the back that can be swiped then I sign, and its even still got the number embossed so should the store still have one of those old carbon zipzap devices they can dust that off and use that. The technology degrades gracefully, in the event of a failure it can fall back to another method, yes it might take longer, be less convenient and probably be less secure but thats a trade off and as a backup system it works great for everybody, I can still pay with my card and the retailer doesn’t lose a sale because some of their technology is broken.

What about the phone, well its contactless or nothing. So if I can’t use that then I’m stuffed, in fact I can’t even use it in a cash machine to get good old fashioned paper money out, so would I reply on my phone as my only form of payment? Of course not! I’ll still need to carry a card or two, and If I’m doing that then why not just use the card all the time, its a lot quicker to downgrade the tech when there’s a problem