December 14, 2010, 1:57 PM

How Gingerbread and mobile payments are related

Google’s new mobile platform offers NFC, a technology that could be used for mobile payments.

Yes, it’s the holidays. But no, I’m not talking about an edible house.

Google last week released new version of its Android mobile operating system called Gingerbread. The system, which is being used in a new Nexus S smartphone from handset maker Samsung Electronics Co., includes Near Field Communication, or NFC—a technology that enables phones (or other items, such as credit cards) to interact with objects— such as posters and payment terminals— from just a few feet away, via radio signals.

Google didn’t stress the potential for NFC-based mobile payments in its Gingerbread announcement. Instead, it focused on consumers using NFC to interact with items like stickers, movie posters and t-shirts.

But I think there might be something payments-related here.

Anyone familiar with NFC is also likely familiar with its over-hyped, under-utilized history in the U.S. electronic payment space. NFC is mildly popular in Japan and Europe as a way to make payments with a mobile device, but that activity never gained much ground with consumers in the States.

However, a big name like Google powering a mobile operating system equipped with NFC could move the needle forward in the U.S.

Particularly when one considers Isis.

Isis, launched last month, uses smartphone and NFC technology to enable shoppers to pay with their phones. And it boasts big-name backers, including A&T Mobility, T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless. The three carriers on board collectively provide wireless services to more than 200 million consumers who will have access to the Isis service. And Barclaycard US, part of Barclays PLC of the United Kingdom, is expected to be the first issuer on the network. Beyond the inaugural deals, Isis is available to all merchants, banks and mobile carriers, and the company expects to introduce its service in key geographic markets over the next 18 months.

So now we’ve got Google, A&T Mobility, T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless involved with NFC—all major mobile names. What’s more, Google says the new Nexus S smartphone will be sold beginning Dec. 16 unlocked and carrier-independent through Best Buy stores in the U.S.—potentially opening up the NFC technology in Gingerbread to many more players.

There’s no doubt that NFC has managed to land several well-connected mobile pals. And that’s definitely causing a bleep on the radar. The question is, is it enough to get consumers, credit- and debit card-issuing banks and merchants to start to sign on for NFC mobile payments? If not, the signal will likely fade once again.

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