CBA rolls out limited native mobile NFC, stickers as a bandaid

The new Commonwealth Bank of Australia app provides native NFC support for the first time, but only in two specific variants of an Android handset.

The Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) has increased the availability of making mobile near-field communication (NFC) payments through tags, but native support for payments remains low.

The bank announced today the release of its CommBank app for Windows Phone and Android that was foreshadowed in October , with NFC payments being one of its new features.

CBA has already enabled iPhone customers to use NFC to make payments via its Kaching app, but to do so requires a third-party case. The case itself costs AU$54.95, and was restricted to the 4 and 4S models of the iPhone.

While CBA told ZDNet that it considered this approach to be successful, it has now rolled out "PayTags" — an AU$2.95 service that uses a sticker to replicate PayPass technology present in credit cards and overcomes problems with missing or unsuitable NFC hardware. An iOS version of the CommBank app, which is necessary to use the tags, is not yet available; only Android users can make use of the feature.

An iOS version of the app will be made available at the end of January 2014. The app is also available on Windows Phone, but it does not work with the tags.

While the bank first catered to iPhone users when it went to market with Kaching under the reasoning that more of its customers used the devices, it told ZDNet that the choice to go with Windows Phone and Android first does not represent any shift in what devices its customers are using.

Many Android devices come with the necessary hardware that should, technically, render the use of tags redundant. However, the problem that CBA has raised in the past is that the secure element in these devices, which CBA needs to use to safely secure the transactions, are not made accessible by the manufacturer.

The bank has been in contact with Samsung, which has presumably released its code base to enable CBA to access the secure element and perform NFC transactions natively without a sticker. Integrating this functionality into more phones, however, is proving to be an arduous task.

Even with the manufacturer and MasterCard in partnership with CBA, native NFC payment capability is only available on the Samsung Galaxy S4. An additional caveat is that not all S4s will be able to support it, either.

The GT-I9505 (LTE) and GT-I9507 (Plus) variants are the only S4 handsets that will support native NFC payments at this time. The GT-I9506 (LTE-A) will also be supported, but only once an update to the handset's software is available next year. Other S4 variants, such as the GT-I9295 (Active) are not yet supported.

A spokesperson for the bank could not state whether it is aware of how many of its customers have these devices, or whether it is able to determine which specific devices its customers use.

CBA also declined to comment on whether it would work with other vendors in the future as it has with Samsung, or simply rely on the tags, but said that the mobile payments space is an important focus for the bank.