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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Barclaycard bPay: wearable payment technology

Mark Bridge pays with a flick of the wrist

Mark Bridge writes:

Contactless payments. They're catching on, aren't they? You can even substitute a contactless credit or debit card for an NFC Oyster Card when travelling on London buses and the Underground. In fact, it's been six years since contactless cards were first accepted in the UK. Since then they've spread to supermarkets, coffee shops, off licences, pretty much anywhere; if your transaction is less than £20, you can just tap and go. (Oh, and for the benefit of any pedants: yes, I know they're not truly 'contactless' unless you've mastered holding your card a fraction of an inch above the reader. But you know what I mean.)

Those few extra seconds gained by contactless transactions are precious, it seems. Or perhaps we're not capable of remembering 4-digit PIN codes any more; an innovation that was introduced around ten years ago because we were no longer capable of writing our own names. Okay, I'm kidding. It's helped reduce some types of card fraud and has also shifted blame for fraudulent use from card providers to customers and retailers. Anyway...

Mobile contactless payments haven't proved so popular. The challenge has been getting secure payment details from your bank to your phone. Until recently it's needed an NFC-equipped phone and a SIM card that's been produced in partnership with a mobile network and bank. Of course, the introduction of Apple Pay may change that - either on its own, by accelerating the development of rival products or increasing the awareness of current alternatives including PayPal - but at the moment it's not especially easy to pay for real-world products with your phone.

At this point, bPay enters the scene. bPay is a wristband that's being produced by Barclaycard. The band is, in effect, a pre-paid contactless debit card. You can load money onto it from a Visa or MasterCard credit or debit card - and than you can then go out and touch your band against any of those in-store contactless payment terminals to pay. It was trialled at Pride in London and the Barclaycard British Summer Time festivals during the summer; a secure and convenient alternative to carrying a wallet when you're only wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

Okay, so it's not 'smartphone mobile' but it is at least 'easy-to-move mobile', which seems like a reasonable compromise to me. And, with the band very literally strapped to your wrist, it's a darned sight more physically secure than a smartphone. A winner all round. I thought I'd give it a go.

Signing up for bPay was pretty easy. A quick visit to bpayband.co.uk (don't get confused with the US banking app that has a similar name) was all I needed. You can choose a basic black or purple strap - or custom designs to show your support for Pride or Southampton FC. The whole process is probably easier than the average online purchase, I'd say.

That process involved giving my email address and mobile number, so I wasn't surprised to receive confirmation SMS and email messages. "Soon you'll be able to pay faster at thousands of retailers across the UK, including high street names such as Starbucks, Pret A Manger, Marks and Spencer, Boots and McDonald's."

A week later my band turned up. Lovely packaging, incidentally. The device itself looks very much like a watch strap without the watch. A silver logo that I'd assumed was the NFC chip is actually the clip, while the active part is in the slightly bulging broader plain portion. Peering through a gap in the band reveals a slim physical card hidden inside.

I activate my bPay band via the web site. There's email and text message notification. Then I top up my bPay band with £25 from my credit card. Again, I receive email and SMS acknowledgement. I could have chosen to automatically reload my card whenever it 'runs out' but I've just gone for a one-off amount.

Incidentally, poking around the bPay web site shows me the 16-digit card number and expiry date. There's even an option to view my CVV - the three-digit security code that's usually on the back of a card - so it looks as though I could use my bPay band for regular non-contactless online payments if I wanted. Incidentally, the expiry date of my bPay band is May next year; less than eight months after it arrived. I wonder what's planned for then?

Time for a real-world test. I strap the bPay band to my wrist, slip it under my shirt cuff and head to the local coffee shop that often doubles as my temporary office. "I'll pay with contactless", I say. It's slightly awkward to touch my wrist on the contactless terminal, mainly because it's below the main counter. I try not to give the impression I'm shoplifting biscuits. Eventually, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts, I manage to pay. It seems the secret is realising that the 'contactless' logo on the machine indicates the position of the reader. Obvious when you think about it.

I pick up my coffee - no fumbling to put a card back in my wallet - and walk off. I'm feeling reasonably pleased with myself. However, despite my success, there's no text alert. No email confirmation, either. Despite the initial flurry of messages, no confirmation is sent when I make a transaction. That's disappointing.

Logging in to the bPay web site on my smartphone enables me to check information about my recent payment. The site is optimised for mobile devices, so it's easy to read. But it also emphasises that bPay isn't any more a 'mobile' solution than sticking one of my contactless credit cards to the back of my phone would be. The option of SMS/email transaction updates - or even an app - could have made this feel so much smarter.

Mark Bridge is a freelance writer with a particular fondness for technology. He's one of the team at TheFonecast.com and is also a regular guest on Talk Radio Europe, where he talks about the latest gadgets.
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Author: The Fonecast
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