It sounds like an old Godzilla movie, but it's actually an interesting wireless factoid from a weekend in Hong Kong.
I was taking the #6 bus from Central to Stanley, a ride known by locals for its similarity to a roller coaster as it whips around a narrow road cut into the south island hills. The ride is the same as I recall from a decade ago, but I was amazed at how technology has transformed the old double-decker buses. What used to be a sauna was now an air-conditioned ride with multiple TV screens for entertainment and an electronic payment system mounted next to the old coin box.
I watched as every single local--rich or poor--disembarked using some sort of contactless card, sometimes holding their wallet or purse directly up to a transponder on the bus. Dut. Dut. Dut. No one fished for change. One woman walked by and waved her watch. Dut.
"A watch!" I cried, incredulous.
"Of course," she replied, as if to say, "Get with it, you dumb gweilo!"
It turns out Hong Kong's so-called Octopus smart card, kicked off in 1997, has become a huge hit. More than 1,000 vendors accept it as a form of payment, including grocery stores, clothing stores and fast food outlets in the special economic zone of Hong Kong and Shenzhen, the giant factory town across the frontier border in mainland China. The system logs an average 10 million transactions a day valued at more than US$10.8 million on more than 50,000 readers.
A friend here is among many singing the praises of the system. He liked how it automatically gave him senior discounts when he recently turned 60.
The card has been so successful that the founding transportation companies created a separate company to manage the business, Octopus Holdings Ltd. The company has created a division with a full-time office in the Netherlands to act as a consultant to others who want to set up similar systems.
Another division provides consumer research services. No doubt there are a few interesting consumer behavior trends to be found mining a database of 10 million daily transactions spanning the last several years.
Octopus has set up relationships with OEMs that now build the transponders into a variety of watches for adults and kids. The transponders are also embedded in a range of key chains and some stuffed toys for kids, who can now just wave Hello Kitty when spending their allowance.
The system uses the Felica
near field communications (NFC) technology from Sony, which supplies components to Octopus. The Hong Kong company handles testing for the cards, readers and embedded devices approved for its system.
Coming from the land of the magnetic stripe, I was very skeptical about NFC technology when I heard backers such as Sony and NXP pitch it. Fellow editors have also harbored doubts. A fledgling NFC trial launched by Sprint earlier this year seemed like a poorly targeted anomaly.
But my Hong Kong weekend has made a believer out of me. I don't see the mag stripe infrastructure in the United States getting replaced anytime soon. But as I travel the world, I will no longer be surprised to see people wave watches, cell phones and stuffed toys at the point of purchase. It's a wireless world.