A confession: I don’t have an Oyster card, being a hick from the sticks who still has to buy physical tickets when travelling into London. So the idea of swiping your way through tube barriers rather than holding up dozens of commuters as you squash your malfunctioning piece of card into the slot already feels space-age to me.
But now they’re combining Oyster cards and mobile phones? Cor! This is one new mobile handset feature that’s absolutely practical. Not only do you not have to carry a separate Oyster card around, but you can also junk the inferiority complex when meeting anyone Japanese (they’ve had this sort of technology in phones for years).
With all the negative publicity around underperforming mobile content like mobile TV, yesterday’s O2/Nokia launch is a reminder that phones merging with other devices isn’t always an overhyped disappointment. This is useful, practical convergence: and you can bet people will want to use it.
There is a downside, of course: if you don’t want that particular Nokia phone, or don’t want to be on O2, you’re scuppered. The way forward is surely to expand this technology across more handsets, and roll it out across all the operators.
Otherwise, it remains a novelty – like that news story last year about Man City fans having mobile tickets to matches, which turned out to only work on one phone that they had to buy from the club.
Get a wider rollout though, and contactless payments using your mobile phone will be hugely popular. The Japanese mobile-enabled vending machine is already something of a stereotype – and yes, I’ve done my bit to foster that recently – but the ability to pay for stuff, then hop on the tube home without coins or cards in sight is a seductive vision.
Imagine if marketing gets involved. You get a text message in the morning telling you that if you pay for that day’s Guardian with your phone, you’ll get 20p off, or a free chocolate bar, or an extra wallchart of dolphins. Or something. Swipe your phone to get into a club, and get two free drinks at the bar. This is all stuff that would genuinely appeal to people.
Perception is important, of course. Everyone I’ve told about the O2/Nokia deal today has asked the same question about the Oyster/phone combo: “Does it still work if my mobile battery’s gone dead?” That’s the first hurdle for O2 and Nokia to surmount: ensure that people realise that yes, they won’t be left stranded in central London just because they forgot to juice up their phone that morning.
A separate question that keeps rearing up at the back of my mind is the fear of concentrating risk in one device. If your phone is your Oyster card, as well as a credit or debit card substitute, the trauma of losing it or having it stolen becomes that much worse. People are already unable to contemplate daily life without their phones, and if anything, this will make the situation worse. It wouldn’t stop me converging everything I can into one device, but that paranoia keeps lurking.
But really it comes back to handsets. For this contactless malarkey to take off, it needs to be in lots of Nokia handsets, not to mention Sony Ericssons, Samsungs, LGs, Motorolas and the rest. It needs to be accessible through all operators, not just O2. I can’t see many people switching handset or operator just to junk their Oyster cards, otherwise.