Samsung Pay beta test shows promise, but the evolution must continue

Samsung has begun beta testing its mobile payment system Samsung Pay in its home country of South Korea. ZDNet had the chance to see how Samsung Pay, after numerous demos on trade shows, works in real life.

When Samsung announced that it bought LoopPay earlier this year, and that it would launch its own "Samsung Pay" mobile payment system, I had my doubts on how well it would integrate the service to its hardware. After all, the South Korean tech giant has launched a slew of features and software for its Galaxy brand phones since the beginning, and many of them are no more. Demos of Samsung Pay at trade shows, whether they were good or bad, also don't really count; they are just there to show how it works, really, and nothing more.

Samsung kept its word, and began beta testing Samsung Pay on July 15 for 1,000 select testers in its home country, and is gearing up for an August rollout -- likely to coincide with the launch of the Galaxy Note 5 -- of the mobile payment system.

So how well does Samsung Pay work in real application? Money well spent, Samsung, money well spent. Though that's not to say that there aren't challenges ahead and room for improvement.

Easy to use

Samsung, along with its competitors Apple Pay and Android Pay, has been preaching how easy it is to use Samsung Pay. And so it is. Samsung Pay gets a thumbs up on ease of use.

This is probably the most important selling point; the more time a consumer wastes on figuring out how a particular app or service works, the less likely it is to be embraced.

Loading card details on the service was very easy. Turn on Samsung Pay, and it will ask you to register a card. All you need to do is place the physical card with the PIN showing face up, place it in front of your phone's camera, and it will read the number within a second. All the text for menus and features are translated from Korean -- Samsung said official English terminologies have not yet been decided.

Up to 10 credit cards can be loaded, and you can choose a preferred card by swiping left or right. You cannot display your cards all at once on a single page, however. I hope Samsung adds a "see all" option, so that I can pick one out immediately instead of swiping relentlessly until I hit the one I want. Not many will find the single swipe option bothersome, much less have 10 cards, but personally, more choice here seems to be a stronger play.

There are two ways to turn on Samsung Pay after registering card details: Pressing the app icon, or swiping up from the bottom of the screen to drag the preferred card out. Either way is quite easy to use, but swiping the card out looks much cooler, and easier if you are the type to plaster your home screen with app icons you don't really use.

Once the preferred card image is on-screen, you can choose to either input a password or place one of your fingers on the fingerprint scanner embedded in the home button, depending on your setup during card registration. Once the phone knows it is you, you can place the phone on a payment terminal in the store and it will trigger the payment. A digital receipt will be loaded on the screen once the payment is successful.

I was impressed with how sensitive the fingerprint recognition is. The Galaxy S6's home button protrudes out more than its predecessor's, the Galaxy S5, which was generally slammed for a weak sensor. Samsung insiders say this was done to increase sensor sensitivity. If the Note 5, which no doubt will be the second phone to have Samsung Pay available, has the same scanner, then consumers will have no problem using it without hassle.

Turning the platform on to use it took seven to eight seconds, five or six once I got used to it, depending on how fast the phone reads your prints. This will no doubt get even faster as smartphone specs climb further up, armed with better sensors.

Now the important question: Will ease of use be a key differentiating point among the competition? In the ninth year since smartphones were commercialised, user experience and user interfaces have come a long way. I haven't tried Apple Pay, because it is not yet available in South Korea, but it seems that it will most likely be easy to use in its own way. We'll just have to wait and see for someone in the US to get to try both of them together. But regular consumers need not worry, because most likely, they will either own a Galaxy or iPhone, not both.

MST meets NFC

Having magnetic secure transmission (MST) and near-field communication (NFC) is probably Samsung Pay's strongest differentiating point. Having MST, thanks to the LoopPay deal, allows Samsung Pay to work on any reader with a magnetic strip card.

I tried out Samsung Pay in multiple stores: Coffee shops, restaurants, and convenience stores in the Gangnam area in Seoul. All were spaced pretty far apart, and unrelated in brand or parent firms.

The clerks in one of the coffee shops didn't seem to know what Samsung Pay was, and a kindly old lady in a convenience store clearly had no clue either. This, though, was on July 15, the first day of beta testing. The readers on both shops looked haggard and worn, and were obviously not contactless. But Samsung Pay worked by putting the phone near the reader. The lady in the convenience store praised the advancement of technology in modern civilisation, and forced me to buy more grapefruit juice so that she could get to use the payment system again.

A more tech-loving clerk in another coffee shop, who was well up to date on IT issues, basically told me that Samsung Pay will work anywhere in South Korea, and it seems true enough.

The advantage in South Korea -- where NFC deployment has been a slow grind -- was very obvious. Contactless readers are less conspicuous here than in Europe, and in a country where Samsung has a market share of around 60 percent, the tech giant seems better poised than its likely competitor Apple Pay to secure users. As always, its home country will serve as the best test bed to evolve the service further.

Scores of developed countries will likely differ, though. The US still prefers magstripes, so the wider availability is an advantage, but wider availability doesn't always equal wider use. iPhone owners and Galaxy owners will still be separate there, and it will be more about who sells more phones in the coming second half than Samsung Pay or Apple Pay in that market. But having an advantage is never a bad thing, so we will have to wait and see.

Europe, where NFC is commonplace, really doesn't offer a plus for the South Korean tech giant.

But for emerging markets, more tech support is always a good thing. Many countries have plans to deploy NFC more widely, but are yet to reach their targets. Having both MST and NFC guarantees easy access to Samsung Pay in those markets, as long as Samsung's phone sells and the mobile payment service continues to evolve and spread in the low- to mid-end markets.

It seems that Samsung Pay's beta version doesn't support payments in transportation such as cabs and subways at the moment, at least in South Korea, and Samsung is yet to confirm whether this will be updated. This will be important in Seoul, the country's capital, known for its countless cabs, intricate subways, and sophisticated bus routes, all popular and part of life for the average Korean -- and phones are used for NFC payments in cabs and buses already.

Having Samsung Pay support transportation cards may allow it to monopolise that market. Transportation preference will differ depending on country, but making it part of Samsung Pay's features in whatever way possible won't hurt.

Against plastic

Samsung Pay faces the same challenge that the smartwatch faces: Does it really replace the good old wallet and plastic cards that we are so used to?

Many are still not sold on whether people really need the smartwatch over conventional watches. For new things to replace old, the advantage or selling point must be obvious, and, to some degree, overwhelming -- like that of a smartphone over a feature phone. Of course, complaints over email and text onslaughts, and sleepless nights aside, no change is without its consequences.

For Samsung Pay and its rivals, it is just the same. It takes me three seconds to get my wallet out of my pocket and pull out my card or cash to pay. It took me six seconds to pay with Samsung Pay. So why would I prefer it over my tattered good old leather wallet?

Not just Samsung, but Apple and Google have also positioned security as an important advantage over wallets. All of them will use token-based security systems, and its mechanics are well documented online. But a phone can be lost just like any wallet. And if I lose my credit card, I can always call the bank and cancel it.

But then again, the smartphone has been touted as a one-in-all from the beginning, and it is an extremely personal device, probably more so than the wallet. Wallets and the cash and credit cards jammed inside it are important, but we don't interact with them in the same way. Perhaps in amongst the strings of calls, texts, music, emails, and videos, the average person might find it natural to just use their smartphone in continuum for payments as well, in whatever order they feel most comfortable. The emotional attachment of phones over wallets may extend use -- and it may not come down to either or.

And mobile payment is still an evolving service -- other, more convenient, payment choices that incorporate already existing online payments systems into one platform, such as Samsung Pay, may be luring. We'll just have to see what Samsung looks like in its official version when it rolls out in August, and how it evolves in the next year.

Source: ZDNet Korea

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