NFC - near-field communications, or 'that thing where you tap a phone to a thing and it does a thing' - was out in force again at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year, pushed heavily by device makers, organisers and app builders.

The badge to get into the conference? That was NFC - and it was checked by an attendant, with an NFC-enabled phone. Along every corridor giant posters implored visitors to bang their NFC-phones to the wall to receive vague information and content.

Meanwhile the GSMA, the mobile operators association which organises MWC, was handing out phones to journalists pre-loaded with NFC 'Digital Visa' cards. And all the big devices, including Sony's Xperia Z tablet and the Asus Padfone Infinity, included demos of this life-changing tech.

So why, over three days of wandering the MWC halls, did HuffPost not see anyone use NFC except when mandated by the organisers?

Right at the back of Hall 3, in a makeshift office buried deep behind an eBay demo stand, one CEO things he knows the answer.

"It's still the 'next year NFC is going to be big' thing," PayPal CEO David Marcus told HuffPost in an interview.

"I still think that it won't."

paypal here

Above: PayPay Here


PayPal, the digital payments service owned by eBay, has consistently resisted NFC even as it tries to move its core digital payments business into the real world dominated by the mainstream banks and credit cards. Instead it has launched new 'real world' products like PayPal Here, a chip-and-pin solution for small retailers recently arrived in the UK.

So why so critical of NFC?

"To change habits you need to provide a lot of value. You're going to have to solve something fundamental to change behaviour," Marcus said.

"We did that online in the good old days of eBay. Before PayPal got on the platform people were literally sending cheques in the mail. Or cash. But if you use that as a parallel to the way people are paying in stores - [the current method] is not a problem. No one is actually thinking about this as, 'this is so hard I need a better way to pay'."

Or, put simply: "Why in the world is tapping better than swiping?"

Marcus argues that the presence of NFC at MWC despite customers reluctance to embrace it represents a crucial problem in the wider tech world - what's good for the companies involved isn't always what the consumer actually wants.

Only certain companies - Apple in particular - have the power, will or obliviousness to ignore those pressures. NFC isn't - and has never been - in Apple's phones, and it's unlikely to happen anytime soon. PayPal isn't Apple, but Marcus's design sensibility and focus on 'customer first' rhetoric has pointed it in a similar philosophical direction.

Even the box the PayPal Here payments console comes in looks, well, iPhone-like.

"I think [the push for NFC] is an inside-out view of the world," he said. "It's what's good for carriers and handset manufacturers, but they're not asking what problem is this going to solve for consumers. That's why I'm not a big believer."

david marcus

Above: PayPayl CEO David Marcus


For PayPal, the key to solving the issues that do exist in payment systems - waiting in line, paying securely, looking for overworked waiters to take your money - is not requiring customers to learn anything new.

That's why it's gone for PayPal Here - which uses existing chip-and-pin cards. That's also why it's using its own 'remote sale' mobile apps to make payments in stores more efficient - ordering before you arrive, for instance, and paying automatically - rather than waiting for banks to switch the bulk of customers to contactless cards or NFC-enabled digital wallet phone apps.

Despite PayPal's decision to focus elsewhere, the slow transition to contactless payments is happening in the UK. The Oyster system on London transport is fully embedded in daily life, for instance. More 'swipe' panels are turning up in retailers and restaurants all the time, and the concept of NFC is starting to gain traction.

Meanwhile the Payments Council is developing an industry-wide scheme to let people transfer money by text. Clearly there is a solution to slow, insecure payments in all this tech somewhere.

As such PayPal's move is still inherently risky. By not embracing NFC, even in tandem with its other products, it risks being left on the back foot once banks, card issuers and retailers decide that NFC has hit critical mass.

In any case, so far NFC remains an unproven contender, like QR codes before it.

"If you want to change the consumer behaviour you have to go for something problematic," Marcus said. "Payments is not one of them. We're not focusing on the payment side but on the shopping experience… that is the beginning of a consumer value proposition that will start to change people's lives."

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  • SPAIN-TELECOM-MOBILE-WORLD-CONGRESS

    A man holds Huawei's new smartphone 'Ascend P2' after a press conference in Barcelona on February 24, 2013, a day before the start of the 2013 Mobile World Congress. The 2013 Mobile World Congress, the world's biggest mobile fair, is held from February 25 to February 28 in Barcelona. AFP PHOTO / JOSEP LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)

  • SPAIN-TELECOM-MOBILE-WORLD-CONGRESS

    Huawei's Consumer Business Group Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Richard Yu presents his company's new smartphone 'Ascend P2' during a press conference in Barcelona on February 24, 2013, a day before the start of the 2013 Mobile World Congress. The 2013 Mobile World Congress, the world's biggest mobile fair, is held from February 25 to February 28 in Barcelona. AFP PHOTO / JOSEP LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)

  • SPAIN-TELECOM-MOBILE-WORLD-CONGRESS

    A woman takes pictures in front of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on February 24, 2013, a day before the start of the 2013 Mobile World Congress. The 2013 Mobile World Congress, the world's biggest mobile fair, is held from February 25 to February 28 in Barcelona. AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE (Photo credit should read LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • SPAIN-TELECOM-MOBILE-WORLD-CONGRESS

    People take pictures of Huawei's new smartphone 'Ascend P2' after a press conference in Barcelona on February 24, 2013, a day before the start of the 2013 Mobile World Congress. The 2013 Mobile World Congress, the world's biggest mobile fair, is held from February 25 to February 28 in Barcelona. AFP PHOTO / JOSEP LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Mobile World Congress 2013 - Previews

    BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 24: Drivers wait for their Mobile World Congress 2013 attendees at the Barcelona - El Prat Airport on February 24, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain. Airport Authorities are expecting an increase of more than 100,000 people passing though Barcelona's airports between February 22 and March 4, coinciding with the hosting of the Mobile World Congress 2013. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

  • Mobile World Congress 2013 - Previews

    BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 24: Drivers wait for their Mobile World Congress 2013 attendees at the Barcelona - El Prat Airport on February 24, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain. Airport Authorities are expecting an increase of more than 100,000 people passing though Barcelona's airports between February 22 and March 4, coinciding with the hosting of the Mobile World Congress 2013. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

  • Mobile World Congress 2013 - Previews

    BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 24: Workers finalize the last details ahead the opening day of the Mobile World Congress 2013 at the Fira Gran Via complex on February 24, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain. 70,000 visitors will visit the Mobile World Congress 2013 where 1,500 exhibitors will present the last wireless communication technologies. The congress runs from Frebuary 25 through February 28. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

  • SPAIN-TELECOM-MOBILE-WORLD-CONGRESS

    People walk outside the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on February 24, 2013, a day before the start of the 2013 Mobile World Congress. The 2013 Mobile World Congress, the world's biggest mobile fair, is held from February 25 to February 28 in Barcelona. AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE (Photo credit should read LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Mobile World Congress 2013 - Previews

    BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 24: A visitor works on his computer the day before of the Mobile World Congress at the Fira Gran Via complex on February 24, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain. 70,000 visitors will visit the Mobile World Congress 2013 where 1,500 exhibitors will present the last wireless communication technologies. The congress runs from Frebuary 25 through February 28. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

  • Mobile World Congress 2013 - Previews

    BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 24: A visitor takes pictures at the main entrance of the Mobile World Congress 2013 at the Fira Gran Via complex on February 24, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain. 70,000 visitors will visit the Mobile World Congress 2013 where 1,500 exhibitors will present the last wireless communication technologies. The congress runs from Frebuary 25 through February 28.(Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

  • Mobile World Congress 2013 - Previews

    BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 24: A visitor sits on a Barcelona sign at the main entrance of the Mobile World Congress 2013 at the Fira Gran Via complex on February 24, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain. 70,000 visitors will visit the Mobile World Congress 2013 where 1,500 exhibitors will present the last wireless communication technologies. The congress runs from Frebuary 25 thorough February 28. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

  • Mobile World Congress 2013 - Previews

    BARCELONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 24: Workers leaves the Fira Gran Via complex after finishing the last details ahead the opening day of the Mobile World Congress 2013 at the Fira Gran Via complex on February 24, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain. 70,000 visitors will visit the Mobile World Congress 2013 where 1,500 exhibitors will present the last wireless communication technologies. The congress runs from Frebuary 25 through February 28. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

  • SPAIN-TELECOM-MOBILE-WORLD-CONGRESS

    A group of cyclists ride past the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on February 24, 2013, a day before the start of the 2013 Mobile World Congress. The 2013 Mobile World Congress, the world's biggest mobile fair, is held from February 25 to February 28 in Barcelona. AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE (Photo credit should read LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • SPAIN-TELECOM-MOBILE-WORLD-CONGRESS-FIREFOX

    People wait to attend the press conference of Mozilla's Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in Barcelona on February 24, 2013, a day before the start of the 2013 Mobile World Congress. The 2013 Mobile World Congress, the world's biggest mobile fair, is held from February 25 to February 28 in Barcelona. AFP PHOTO / JOSEP LAGO (Photo credit should read JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)


For all that, there were interesting uses of NFC on show at MWC this year. Over at the GSMA's own stand - Connected City - several current or near-future tech demos showed off everything from coffee machines with embedded SIM cards to a network of electric scooters, all enabled by... NFC.

"Over half the exhibits are live. We wanted to show how mobile connectivity was already in people's lives, but they might not see it. In the new model there are things around you that you just don't know about," said GMSA Connected Experiences marketing director Andrew Parker, in an interview.

"We're seeing a new level of connectivity where things just happen around you - hopefully positively - and make your life better. It's like walking into a room and the lights come on."

Ultimately that's the key - everyone at MWC, whether pro NFC or not, wants to find ways to make things easier. It's just finding the easiest way to do that which is - still - the problem.

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  • Sony Xperia Tablet Z

    The Xperia Z was released in Japan a month ago, but went unnoticed here until its announcement by Sony at this year's show. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/02/25/sony-xperia-tablet-z_n_2757222.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-tech">It's a compelling 10-inch device</a>. Thin at just 6.9mm, well-built and with a beautiful screen, it will only be hindered by a lack of 10-inch Android apps (still) and the high-quality, but divisive, black-and-glass Sony aesthetic.

  • Ubuntu Touch

    Ubuntu Touch is a new Linux-based mobile OS which also supports HTML 5 apps, including ones built by Facebook and Twitter. <a href="http://news.cnet.com/8301-13970_7-57571750-78/ubuntu-touch-beats-firefox-os-to-win-best-of-mwc-from-cnet/">CNET voted it the best product of MWC 2013 by a landslide.</a>

  • Firefox OS

    Firefox OS was announced last year and was on show for the first time in 2013, which devices and a range of manufacturers.<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/02/26/firefox-os-interview-johnathan-nightingale_n_2765214.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-tech"> We came away impressed by the vision but ready to see more on execution</a>. Still, its focus on the low-end and developing markets means it has a shot to change the world, even if you won't be using one in the UK for years.

  • Nokia's £13 Phone

    The Nokia 105 is a very, very low-cost phone with few features and a month's battery life. But while you're not playing Angry Birds on it, it's still impressive and potentially a huge advance for markets where access to charging points - and money - is not as simple as it is in Barcelona.

  • Asus PadFone Infinity

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/02/25/asus-mobile-world-congres_n_2758471.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-tech">In an eccentric press conference</a> Asus announced the Padfone Infinity, an ultra-HD premium version of its phone-tablet duo. Sliding the phone into the back of the 10-inch screen turns the 5-inch, all-metal handheld into a tablet for browsing and watching movies on its exceptionally clear and bright screen.

  • Asus Fonead

    The 7-inch Fonepad by Asus will cost just £179 when it's released in the UK. But will anyone be prepared to use it? <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/02/25/asus-jonathan-santaub-reg_n_2759192.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-tech">Asus told us that the "Dom Joly might catch on"</a>. But we're not convinced yet.

  • Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0

    Like the Asus Fonepad, the 8-inch tablet by Samsung is usable as a phone. But this is much more of a tablet than a primary mobile phone, with Samsung's high-quality S-Pen and note-taking screen. It's not hugely different to what we've seen before, but we enjoyed using it <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/02/25/samsung-galaxy-note-8-hands-on-preview_n_2757617.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-tech">and want to see more</a>.

  • Samsung Galaxy S4

    Samsung teased the tech world by announcing its S4 launch date right in the middle of the show. The invitations it sent us were spiffy, but the buzz caused by the news illustrated a wider problem - nothing else was that compelling.

  • To NFC Or Not To NFC?

    Near-field communications - using short-band radio waves to use your phone and bank card to pay for information, share data and communicate - was out in force at MWC again. But even a strong push by the GSMA to get people tapping with impunity by giving out Sony phones loaded with VISA credit seemed to fall a bit short, and it might be time for a new idea.

  • I'm Watch

    This 'I'm Watch' smartwatch was actually a bit ropey in our tests, with poor apps and an unresponsive screen. But the throng around the stand showed that people are ready for an iWatch, whenever Apple wants to get around to letting us pay money for one.