back to article Smartphones aren't tiny PCs, but that's how we use them in the West

On a recent trip to Shanghai, I saw a person in front of me in a supermarket queue present their mobile phone when asked for payment. The clerk quickly pointed the laser scanner at the phone - blip!- the sale completed. But not thanks to NFC. I’d just seen AliPay, a mobile payments system backed by Alibaba (the world’s largest …

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  1. jjcoolaus

    QR Codes are still around....

    <blockquote>After a brief heyday of experimentation, they’ve vanished from public spaces in Australia and America</blockquote>

    No they haven't. I still see QR codes almost daily. Bus shelter ad spaces have them a lot.

    1. Paul Shirley

      Re: QR Codes are still around....

      Same here. What's changed is rarely feeling any interest in scanning them and almost never bothering to pull the phone to do it even on those rare occasions. Seems like the novelty was all that was driving them. I now see NFC pads stuck on bus shelters, advertising boards etc. Intriguing the first few times but the novelty didn't last long enough to actually try it at all.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: QR Codes are still around....

        What's changed is that QR codes can be poisoned, so each one is viewed with at least some trepidation. The Chinese possess a level of trust in the system the west doesn't have. It all relies on a chain whereby a single link could cause real trouble if it's usurped (and it probably is, by the state, but most of them don't care).

        1. Paul Shirley

          Re: QR Codes are still around....

          QR could always be poisoned, that's why every reader I've used shows the data before letting the user decide what to do. Making it easier is of course enough to get more people choosing stupid anyway.

          1. moiety

            Re: QR Codes are still around....

            QR --> bit.ly --> Goatse

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: QR Codes are still around....

              >QR --> bit.ly --> Goatse

              Yep as the original rick roll it was so much more unpleasant. The curse of early adoption.

              1. This post has been deleted by its author

          2. Vector

            Re: QR Codes are still around....

            "...every reader I've used shows the data before letting the user decide what to do"

            Which, often as not returns some shortened URL that's useless as a determining factor, so we're back to trust being an issue.

        2. Sebastian A

          Re: QR Codes are still around....

          Remember the code that would hard-reset your Samsung phone with no confirmation and that could be embedded in a QR code?

          1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

            Re: QR Codes are still around....

            Except that as I read the article, the phone displays the qr code and the supermarket hardware reads it. There may not even be a url, let alone a poisoned one : it's just a cheap way to provide your secret to their reader.

        3. veti Silver badge

          Re: QR Codes are still around....

          And there's the problem, right there. QR codes in the west have only ever really been used for advertising. We've become accustomed to seeing it as an invitation to "scan this if you want to see more ads".

          Not very surprisingly, not a lot of people take up that invitation.

          We've always seen it as a machine-optically-readable version of a URL. But it really doesn't have to be. It can convey (exchange) all sorts of information that's got nothing to do with web browsing, and it sounds as if the Chinese have realised this. Good on them.

      2. boltar Silver badge

        Re: QR Codes are still around....

        "I now see NFC pads stuck on bus shelters, advertising boards etc."

        No danger of them being misused, oh no...

        Still, anyone who sticks their phone on some random pad deserves whatever happens frankly.

  2. J J Carter Silver badge
    Trollface

    Yup...

    Time to bring back Microsoft Tag!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Yup...

      It'll probably become as popular as Windows Phone… Maybe…

  3. ratfox Silver badge

    The reason China is more advanced in terms of online payments is by and large due to the dismal US banking industry, which still relies on cheques, and does not yet seem to have gotten the idea of account transfers.

    It does not help that every player in the industry, from stores to credit card companies to phone makers to OS makers are hindering each other in the great race to a sliver of that sweet cash.

    QR codes are nice, but in that particular case, they offer no particular advantage over NFC. The miracle is rather that the store and the bank simply accepted the use of Alipay without throwing a fit and attempting to create their own incompatible and buggy system.

    1. IT veteran

      Well...

      "QR codes are nice, but in that particular case, they offer no particular advantage over NFC. The miracle is rather that the store and the bank simply accepted the use of Alipay without throwing a fit and attempting to create their own incompatible and buggy system."

      It probably helps that China is an authoritarian government which still has control over the banks...

      1. John 110
        Joke

        Re: Well...

        "control over the banks..."

        I recognize the individual words, but the actual sentence makes no sense to me...

        1. Tom 64
          Windows

          Re: Well...

          I think what he means is the bank execs still have to work under the threat of a 'disappearance', if they fuck up. Which they will, eventually.

      2. jasper pepper

        Re: Well...

        Well, of course, whereas in the democratic West the banks have the governments by the balls.

      3. YARR

        It probably helps that China is an authoritarian government which still has control over the banks...

        No it probably helps that QR codes work on the 700+ million low-end smartphones currently in use in China whereas western banks assume all western consumers will just buy a new high end smartphone every 18 months to get NFC (I wont - so it will be at least 5 years before I buy a phone that has NFC).

    2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Advantage of QR over NFC

      Crims can steal from NFC bank cards 40cm away without you noticing until the bill arrives. Victims have to actually point their camera at a QR code, and there is some hope that the phone might display the amount, who gets paid and an opportunity to cancel the transaction.

      1. NotBob

        Re: Advantage of QR over NFC

        I read that as the store scanned something on the phone. Either way, I see potential issues. My camera is broken, my buddy busted his screen. One of us is going to have problems.

      2. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Advantage of QR over NFC

        "Crims can steal from NFC bank cards 40cm away without you noticing until the bill arrives."

        HOW when Android Pay and Apple Pay both require you to UNLOCK your phone first? And if my phone goes off but not the store's PIN Pad, that raises a red flag right there.

      3. dajames Silver badge

        Re: Advantage of QR over NFC

        ... there is some hope that the phone might display the amount, who gets paid and an opportunity to cancel the transaction.

        Yes, that would be nice. It's certainly something I'd hope for ... though I wouldn't expect to get it.

    3. Stevie Silver badge

      Cheques???

      US financial transactions are overwhelmingly done by debit and credit cards. Cash is always an alternative. Paypal for mail xfers, though I dislike using it (it seems to be strangely popular with UK web stores for some reason, possibly due to usurious merchant account fees charged by British banks) is the norm.

      But for web and face-to-face sales, credit card/debit card is the norm.

      Only the Electric and Gas companies will take a check (proper US spelling since we are discussing US banking practice) and they typically process the transaction as a direct debit (the equivalent of getting a cheque cleared immediately through the aegis of the Bank of England).

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Cheques???

        No, most US entities still accept checks. Here's one thing: I don't want to publicly publish my bank account number - because then someone can make fake checks with my bank routing number and account number on them. Banks have too much invested in the status quo to change quickly.

        I prefer receiving a check to receiving cash for larger amounts :

        (1) I can deposit it to my account using a smartphone banking app which uses the camera to take pictures of the front and back.

        (2) Large amounts of cash have to be taken to the bank or kept in the safe - I just shred the checks when they've cleared.

        BUT:

        (1) the DEA is also happy that I prefer accepting checks.

        Consumers still write checks - every single damn person over 50 in front of me in the supermarket checkout, for example.

        1. Lou 2
          Alien

          Re: Cheques???

          What are these cheque things you speak off? They are a replacement for electronic cash? It is something made from paper your write on with a pen? And you can buy a cow or sheep with that?

          Magical stuff hey? Amazing that people are allowed these newly fangled trading methods in their villages.What happened to good old gold coins?

          Welcome to the real world mate where cash and cheques are things in museums

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Cheques???

            There is still a place for the humble cheque. Both at the low end, e.g inside a birthday card, and especially for high value payments.

            I was recently lucky enough to be able to pay for a flat with my own funds. I paid the deposit via bank transfer, this was over the online transfer limit so I thought I had to go into the branch. FOUR HOURS later (apointments not available for making a transfer, why don't you go online sir?) and £25 lighter I finally escaped.

            The bank (Barclays) made me wait two hours to see someone and then forced me into a chargable CHAPS same day transfer because they don't allow free faster payments transfers from personal accounts for more than the online transfer limit despite the system supporting up to £250,000 per payment. Effecting the transfer took nearly 2 hours and three members of staff as the first two weren't properly trained in how to do it.

            When the time came to pay the balance I gave the lawyer a cheque (there is no limit on cheques). Cleared in a few days, no hassle at all.

        2. Stevie Silver badge

          Re: Cheques???

          And yet in Starbucks and Barnes & Noble and IHoP and any NY diner and any NY restaurant you'll see cash, and credit cards and debit cards being used to pay. Can't remember the last time I saw anyone so much as *try* and pass a check for their lunch or their books or their posh yuppie coffee.

      2. John PM Chappell

        Re: Cheques???

        As someone who worked for the largest bank in the US; no. Cheques (or checks, as you prefer) are real and constitute a large part of daily operations. They even constitute the bulk of fraud investigations (guess what I did ;) ).

    4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "OS makers are hindering each other in the great race to a sliver of that sweet cash."

      This is the primary reason not be an early adopter of anything. At least half of early adopters get badly stung, not because the chose the worst of the options, but because someone with deep pockets pumps many more groats into marketing their preferred system, bribing sellers and producers to use it. Few of the big big companiesm institutions or industries are prepared to play ball and co-operate. Either the systems involved include silly-money licencing fees to use the system (a la Apples per transaction fees) or others "invent" around the patents to make yet another incompatible system. This leaves us users, especially in terms of a payment system, having to have multiple identities,devices or apps to cope with all of them, or be locked out of some services.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It boils down to the Chinese writing...

    ... QR codes fit very well in it <G>. And when your language doesn't allow to create new words easily, any way to identify something easily is welcome.

    For payments, I'm a Luddite and still prefer those plastic cards with a chip on board. I'm not sure a phone app issuing QR codes is safe enough. And at least they don't need a charged battery.

    1. Nigel 11

      Re: It boils down to the Chinese writing...

      For payments, I'm a Luddite and still prefer those plastic cards with a chip on board

      Me too. 2-factor security: something you have *and* something you know. Also the UK legal situation: it's the credit card company's responsibility to prove that you owe them the money, in a court if necessary. It's far easier to be categorical if the hardware you used is provided to you by the card company, so if they so much as mention malware it is their problem by definition.

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: It boils down to the Chinese writing...

        But how do you do two-factor security when many people are too stupid to KNOW anything?

        1. kmac499

          Re: It boils down to the Chinese writing...

          I suspect that anyone using pictograms for their written language doesn't find it all that strange that their phones communicate using a digital pictogram.

          QR codes are hopelessly under used here. I'm currently trying to craft one I can stick on the side of my motorcycle helmet for first responders:- Basic ID, Blood group,No allergies,Organ Donor and emergency phone number.

          1. David Nash Silver badge

            Helmets

            Basic ID, Blood group,No allergies,Organ Donor and emergency phone number.

            I'm interested to know how adding a QR code for this information is better than putting the information itself on the helmet. It's not a huge amount of info to find space for, say at the bottom on the back.

            1. moiety

              Re: Helmets

              Might want to protect the ID and emergency number, I suppose. I'd want blood group and the no allergies bit right up front; because you might need that in a real hurry.

              Also:

              http://www.visualead.com/qr-code-generator/plain-text/

            2. Gene Cash Silver badge

              Re: Helmets

              > I'm interested to know how adding a QR code for this information is better than putting the information itself on the helmet

              I'm interested to know what emergency responders would have a clue what a random QR code would be, twig that it has your medical info on it, and figure out how to read it. In less than a 3-day required course.

              Most of the American medical personnel have difficulties responding to a text. All the doctors and nurses are complete technical idiots and PROUD OF IT thankyouverymuch.

              Computer? Oh, that's something the MRI tech uses, and he's a lowly TECH. None of that for us!

              1. Dave 126 Silver badge

                Re: Helmets

                I'd be tempted to print the medical info, affix it to the helmet, then cover the info with a sticker bearing the Medic Alert symbol (snakey stick in red).

                Care to be given to making sure that the sticker is easy to peel off, whilst at the same secure against wind.

                Thought to be given to abrasion resistance.

                Here's hoping you never need it.

                1. moiety

                  Re: Helmets

                  Got to be careful with stickers and crash helmets...some adhesives don't play nice with fibreglass and/or the plastics that helmets are made of. Well, the solvents in the adhesive, more specifically.

                2. Gordon861

                  Re: Helmets

                  Just get a dogtag made up and wear it around your neck, any first responder with very little training will look for that. It will also go to the hospital with you when some idiot decides to remove your helmet.

                  However from discussions with doctors the blood type check is very quick and besides an emergency they will pump you with universal donor blood so it doesn't matter anyways.

            3. Lou 2
              Happy

              Re: Helmets

              So that our soon to be established robot overlords can read it at a glance. And decide to replace you with one of their robot mates.

          2. boltar Silver badge

            Re: It boils down to the Chinese writing...

            >QR codes are hopelessly under used here. I'm currently trying to craft one I can stick on the side of

            >my motorcycle helmet for first responders:- Basic ID, Blood group,No allergies,Organ Donor and

            >emergency phone number.

            Right. Because if you're a mangled mess on the road and they've just arrived and are hoping to save your life I can just imagine the situation:

            "Whats this QR code for. Anyone got a phone? Lets have a look."

            "Oh , doesn't work, anyone got another phone? Yeah, I'll wait a sec ... "

            "He's coughing blood, got that phone yet? Android 2.0? You kidding me, that won't work, Mick, what phone you got..."

            "Whats this? Unrecognised code... hold on, it got scratched in the crash, there we go!"

            "Viola, blood type AB....Shit, he just died."

            1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

              Re: It boils down to the Chinese writing...

              ""Viola, blood type AB....Shit, he just died."

              After all that, play a large violin? Sort of appropriate and inappropriate at the same time.

        2. Sureo

          Re: It boils down to the Chinese writing...

          "But how do you do two-factor security when many people are too stupid to KNOW anything?"

          If their ability to pay for things depends on it, they'll know...

          1. Charles 9 Silver badge

            Re: It boils down to the Chinese writing...

            "If their ability to pay for things depends on it, they'll know..."

            Don't be so sure. Some people can't remember a PIN to save their lives, which is why they eventually fall back on cash...which means they get left out of cashless environments.

    2. stucs201

      Since you mentioned plastic cards

      It seems the phone in this case is just being used to display a code. So there's actually nothing about this system that needs the customer to have anything electronic - it seems it would work just as well with the QR code printed on a plastic card.

      I'm assuming here that the code is constant for a given account. Others seem to think it's a generated unique code for the transaction. The latter would be more secure, but the description in the article doesn't really make it clear which is actually the case.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Since you mentioned plastic cards

        There are several ways to pay with it. The QR code can be used both ways. Eg, a website will present you with a QR code when you get to the payment stage, you scan it with your phone, done.

        I've not yet had a chance to use it much, but from my many relations in China, there is no doubt its convenience has been enthusiastically adopted by the general population. It's now ubiquitous, when just 5 years ago, it simply did not exist.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: It boils down to the Chinese writing...

      Chinese writing is probably one reason, but not the only one.

      The Chinese banking system was messy just a few years back, they had little support for international card schemes (Visa/MC), and their local market was /extremely/ fragmented.

      Imagine trying to recharge your mobile on the biggest telco, ChinaMobile - on the payment page, there were 30, yes, *thirty* different payment logos to select, one for each supported Chinese bank (and sadly, not mine...). No Visa, no MC, of course, but not even China UnionPay, which was still young.

      So new payment systems had a very different market to develop in, and took different paths. One may remember the QQ coin, which was so big 6 years ago that the government had to rein them in, and now doesn't get any mention anymore...

  5. Dan 55 Silver badge

    Barcode Scanner on Play or FDroid

    Job done. It just works.

    I only use it to pass URLs from the browser to the phone by the way.

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