Google's Nexus devices have been gaining popularity with every iteration; each new Nexus phone seems to sell more than its predecessor. At the same time, the use of NFC has been increasing with the passing of each year, with more and more markets around the world being treated to multiple NFC payment and ticketing services. All of the signs are pointing towards NFC payments finally reaching critical mass, but users of Nexus devices might very well be left behind.
Background summary:The vast majority of existing NFC payment services around the world require the use of a hardware secure element. The secure element is a physical storage location that is completely separate from the phone's OS. This is where a user's sensitive data, such as card details, are stored, and where secure payment applications can be run from. Virtually all NFC payments services use either a phone's built-in embedded secure element or a special SIM card-based secure element, but MicroSD secure elements also exist.
As with many emerging technologies, there's some conflict over what the industry standard should be. This is somewhat similar to what was seen with Betamax vs VHS or Blu-ray vs HD DVD. Google are backing the embedded secure element as the default, but the world's networks are backing the SIM secure element to be the standard for payments and other secure services.
The Problem:Google's backing of the embedded secure element is most clearly seen by its use in Google Wallet. This is why all Nexus devices since the Nexus S have featured NFC hardware that includes an embedded secure element, and why the HTC One will never be capable of using Google Wallet (all non-Sprint/GSM/international variants of the One feature NXP's PN544 NFC controller on its own, without an added embedded secure element).
However, Google Wallet has some problems. Firstly, it's only available in the USA, and it's been that way for two years. Secondly, Bloomberg reports that the service has accrued costs of over $300million since launcing. Finally, there's an apparent lack of Google Wallet users in the USA. All of these things mean it's more than plausible that Google Wallet, in its mobile payments form, will not exist forever; Google are certainly not averse to closing down a 'failing' service. If Google Wallet does close down, surely Nexus users could simply use a SIM secure element for ISIS (the NFC payments service being backed by a number of US telecom companies) or other competing services, right? This is where the issue lies.
Nexus devices run AOSP (Android Open Source Project) 'stock' Android, with a few additional device-specific customisations added in. Stock Android does not support SIM secure elements - the required code is simply not there. Despite this, NFC-enabled flagship phones from Samsung, Sony, HTC and LG are capable of using applications that rely on an embedded or SIM-based secure element. This is because all of these manufacturers have added support for the SmartCard API to their versions of Android. The SmartCard API is a part of SEEK for Android, an open source implementation of the Open Mobile API that is promoted as a standard by the GSM Association. It is this API that allows phones from these manufacturers to make use of SIM secure elements.
If it's an open source API that's already being adopted by practically all major Android manufacturers, why aren't Google adding it to AOSP? We don't know. In fact, the developers of the SmartCard API submitted their code for inclusion in Android during May of 2011. Speaking to NFC Brief, a developer of the SEEK project had this to say:
"Initially we tried to submit the code to Google - there is even an empty repository named SmartCardService created at that time, but we did not receive any reviews in regards to the submitted patches so we focused on the integration with the OEMs directly. However, this is not a pleasant situation for all parties as it involves extra work. We hope to be able to have SmartCard API integrated in the AOSP platform [at some point]."
Perhaps Google started work on the project and then changed their minds. Google did not provide comment on this when contacted.
What about custom ROMs?Some might cite the healthy custom ROM scene that surrounds Android, suggesting that they'd be able to add the freely-available patches/code to Nexus devices. However, it's unfortunately not that simple. The SEEK developer again provided clarification as to why:
"Access to the SIM requires special adaptations in the baseband firmware (plain APDU access), so it can only work on such devices where the stock firmware already includes those changes. The Nexus 4 does not support such, however, you can use the [Samsung Galaxy] S3 and flash your own image with SIM & MicroSD & eSE support. A Nexus device would be more interesting but so far you will not get SIM access to work on such."
What does this all mean?The crux of this article is that users of Nexus devices are, at best, entirely dependent on Google for any and all NFC payment/ticketing services. At worst, Nexus owners will be completely unable to use any secure NFC services. The latter is the current situation for owners of Nexus devices who reside outside of the USA, at a time when SIM-based NFC payment services from telcos and banks are moving at a great pace throughout Western Europe. If these types of services might appeal to you in the near future, think twice before buying any Nexus device.
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