A credit card in your mobile? Why the novelty needs to wear off


I’ve just been reading about the new contactless credit card that’s going to be released by Barclaycard and the mobile phone company, Orange.

To use the card, all you have to do is wave it near a special ‘Paywave’ reader in a shop, and the money you’ve spent is automatically deducted from your balance (which is subject to a pre-agreed spending limit).

It’s a great way of getting through queues quickly, and the technology has a kind of novelty factor that appeals to everyone’s inner child. (“I reach. I point. And *kerpow*! I hold the shopkeeper spellbound. The sweets are mine, mwah ha ha!”).

The card, though, is just the first step on Barclaycard and Orange’s journey to providing us with something much more exciting – a mobile phone that has an inbuilt credit card.

I used to have one

That’s right. Back in 2007, I took part in this trial run by Barclaycard, O2 and Transport for London. In return for abandoning the Sony Walkman phone I was using at the time, I was given a fairly bog standard Nokia clamshell handset and had to promise to use it for six months.

At first glance, not the best deal in the world. But it was considerably sweetened by the fact that I could also use the phone as an Oyster card (a swipe card that allows you to travel on London buses and tubes) and a contactless Barclaycard. You could also swipe the phone over special posters on the Underground to instantly transfer event information to your phone.

It was enormous fun, and the fact that I was given lots of free money on the credit card and Oyster card functions made it doubly entertaining.

The only problem was that you couldn’t buy anything, or travel anywhere, without having to tell your life story to shopkeepers or officials. And that slowed you down a lot – which probably wasn’t the point.

This was normal

Let’s take travelling first. In theory, all London Transport officials had been tipped off that several hundred people had Oyster cards built into their phones. The reality was rather different. It went a bit like this.

I get on to a bus and wave the phone by the Oyster reader. The machine bleeps in that negative ‘card not recognised’ way. I stop and try several times, causing a queue of people to bank up behind me.

Bus driver: “What the f*ck are you doing?”

Me: “I’m trying to swipe my Oyster card.”

Bus driver: “That’s a mobile.”

Me: “Yes, and an Oyster.”

Bus driver (wearing his best ‘another nutter’ expression): “It’s a phone. It’s not a f*cking Oyster. Get off the bus.”

Me (as the card is finally accepted with a triumphal bleep): “You are *so* right.”

To be fair, I ended up meeting lots of those ticket inspectors who board buses to check you’re not fare dodging. They were generally quite clued up and inquisitive, and – if anything – were surprised that such a low-spec phone was capable of working as an Oyster card.

Buying stuff

Buying things was equally amusing. The problem here wasn’t with the technology, but with the lack of places that supported it.

In theory the phone allowed you to access a map of shops that used the Paywave system. Ironically, just as I got the phone I had stopped commuting from Hackney into the City every day. That’s where most of the shops were.

There was one further problem. Many of the shops on the map were those that were about to get the technology. Which meant they didn’t have it at all.

Finally, I discovered the two nearest places to me that supported Paywave were an independent supermarket in Finsbury Park and a wine merchant about another mile or so away. I used to go to the latter quite often. We’d have conversations like this:

Me: “Hello.”

Assistant 1: “Hello. You’re the guy with the phone, aren’t you?”

Assistant 2: “The what?”

Assistant 1: “The phone. He’s got a phone he can pay for things with.”

Assistant 2: “Really. How does that work.”

Assistant 1: “He’ll show you.”

Assistant 2: “Cool.”

Assistant 1 (turning to me): “How can I help you?”

Me: “A bottle of Napoleon sherry please.”

Assistant 1: “That’ll be £9.99 please.”

Me (pointedly handing over a £10 note): “Thanks!”

As I said, the technology is a lot of fun. But sometimes you just want the anonymity that comes with cash. And I think the phones will one day provide it – when the novelty has worn off.

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