Saturday, November 24, 2012

Gemalto NFC Contactess Challenge: Take the Boat (Thames Clipper)

As a former now almost Londoner, I can categorily state that the best way to see London is through the local river bus service, the Thames Clipper. It is also my favourite method of traveling across London. The Thames Clipper operates between Embankment Pier and Woolwich Arsenal Pier, so if you live or work near one of the piers serviced on this route - I truly envy you. It would be a dream to move into a home just by the Thames.

The Thames Clipper is the only commuter service in Britain (that I know of) which offers commuters and tourists alike the ability to pay as you go via contactless payment. This is in addition to accepting contactless Oyster card and regular plastic payments just like on the regular Tube, Overground and London bus services. These contactless payments are only acceptable on-board the boats. Nobody at the ticket booths are equipped with the equipments necessary to process contactless payment.
The 'I am on a boat' moment
Well the important thing is you could pay on-board the boat, and the good news is I did complete my 'Take the Boat' Gemalto NFC Contactless Challenge this time. The bad news is I found the process far too slow compared to using a bog standard Oyster card. There has been calls for Transport for London to replace RFID Oyster card with regular contactless bankcards and after witnessing how slow it was to take payment, but I can't see that happening, ever. Not with the current technology at least. My attempt to pay today was twice declined by the bank, and once failed to go through because the mobile network was poor in the middle of the river. It only successfully went through on the fourth attempt, and only after the staff switched to a different terminal.

Now imagine this happening on the Tube.

In my experience, contactless payment appears to take anywhere between five seconds to 15 seconds to process (from tap to receipt), depending on the condition of the network and other shenanigans. An Oyster card takes a fraction of a second (300-350 milliseconds I heard). Modern NFC chipsets like the one on the Galaxy S III aren't slow, but contactless payment mechanism is as it requires authentication from the bank before the payment is validated. Yes, contactless is a good enough upgrade over chip and pin for coffee shops to take advantage of, but right now it is just way too slow for mass transit use where passenger flow is a critical factor. Even an additional 100 millisecond delay will add up considerably.
Now that is what I call a boat
The Tube network carries 3.3 million passengers daily. On the Thames Clipper, this is acceptable as the numbers of passengers the services carries are significantly lower than the Tube (by 3.29 million), so it isn't totally useless on the Thames Clipper. Having said that if you have an Oyster card, Thames Clipper will also provide discounts on the ticket costs if paid using balance from the Oyster card itself, so why not just pay with an Oyster card instead?

TfL can probably fix this issue by introducing a proprietary Oyster card app for NFC-enabled smartphones that syncs credits or tokens from customers Oyster card accounts. This has nothing to do with contactless bank card payment we were talking about earlier, but it does at least allows customers with NFC-ed phones to carry one less card. Almost ten years since receiving my first Oyster card, I have yet to see a better solution than just using the darn thing. I am not saying we should not progress, but until we see a solution that is actually better, why switch? When and if contactless payments are ever deployed on the Tube, it should be because it is better and faster, not because we want to lighten our wallets by 5 grams.

Besides, you can't turn your phone into a magic Oyster wand.

No comments: