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Who is Apple's Benjamin Vigier?

Tech bloggers and online journalists who cover this industry worked themselves into a frenzy again the past week, this time over the hiring by Apple of Benjamin Vigier as project manager for mobile commerce.

Referring to Vigier variously as an NFC expert, NFC veteran and even an NFC guru, the journalists are convinced his appointment is the final piece of evidence needed to signal Apple’s adoption of NFC. And some see it as a sure sign of Apple’s forthcoming assault on the retail-payments market.

But nearly all of the renewed speculation about Apple’s NFC and payment plans is based solely on Vigier’s self-inscribed LinkedIn profile. That is in addition to the earlier-reported patent applications involving NFC filed by Apple, along with some fresh rumors that the company is again testing NFC phones, using chips from NXP Semiconductors.

LinkedIn profiles, however, are little more than digital CVs or résumés. Knowing how we all try to put our best foot forward on CVs–and perhaps embellish things a little–I thought it might be a good idea to look a little more deeply into the profile. After all, Vigier is not well-known in the NFC industry.

It might help to know a little bit about his background if we are going to try to divine what Apple is planning to do–never an easy task. Don’t forget that NFC industry backers were sorely disappointed in June when the new iPhone came out with video calling, a 5-megapixel camera and a 3-axis gyroscope but no NFC.

As expected, Apple isn’t confirming Vigier’s appointment or commenting on it at all. But there is little doubt it happened, since Vigier announced it himself in an e-mail to his mailing list Aug. 11. Apple may not have been so happy about that, but he did follow Apple protocol in not talking to the press.

Overall, Vigier has accumulated some valuable NFC experience during the past six years–mainly with French mobile operator Bouygues Telecom, which was an early backer of NFC; flash memory supplier SanDisk, which had a pioneering NFC program for microSD cards; and mFoundry, a developer of mobile-banking and m-payment software for U.S. banks and other service providers. At mFoundry, he also led product development for the high-profile Starbucks Card Mobile application launched earlier this year at more than 1,000 stores using 2-D bar codes.

It’s important to note, however, that Vigier’s background is in technology, not the payments industry. And he does not have direct experience with an NFC company. Also, Vigier does not apparently have experience bringing an NFC project fully to market, even at the trial stage.

Early Work on NFC SIMs
I first covered Vigier when he worked at Bouygues, France’s third largest mobile operator, in late 2004 through the end of 2005. There he did important work—among the first in fact–on prototype NFC phones and SIM cards that could store transit-ticketing applications. This was a forerunner to standard single-wire protocol NFC phones and SWP-enabled SIMs.

It was not a senior position, however, and as SIM innovation and contactless technology manger, NFC was only one of the areas Vigier worked on. He was mainly dedicated to research and development on 3G SIM cards and reported to Christophe Nivelet, formerly head of embedded applications, and later Philippe Coppolani, who was in a similar role, according to a source at Bouygues. Among those Vigier reported to indirectly was director of contactless and payment services Laurent Jullien.

Bouygues launched a public NFC trial with Paris Métro operator RATP with about 50 users in November 2006, following one or more internal pilots earlier.

By that time, Vigier had been lured away to Silicon Valley and flash-memory card maker SanDisk, where he reported to fellow Frenchman Pascal Caillon, who was then director of mobile content and security solutions.

First NFC-enabled microSD Stillborn
In early 2006, when Vigier joined SanDisk, the company was eager to try to cash in on the mobile-commerce buzz. A few months earlier, SanDisk had introduced “TrustedFlash,” which would be a secure area on its SD cards that could support digital rights management for music, movies and other premium content.

The company then proposed adding a smart card chip to the flash cards to store bank-payment applications. The idea was that consumers could plug the secure flash cards directly into NFC phones and then tap the phones to make contactless purchases using the NFC antenna built into the phones.

Among Vigier’s main jobs, a person who worked on the project told me, was to establish a connection between the SanDisk microSD flash cards and SIM cards in the NFC phones so that the SIM could authorize the downloads of the payment applications to the flash cards. That was a key requirement from mobile operators in France and elsewhere in Europe–to be able to control what NFC applications get downloaded to the phones.

SanDisk announced plans for the NFC flash cards in May 2006, with the intention of launching them commercially the following year. But the product never made it to market. SanDisk probably killed it in large part because of the lack of NFC phones.

But SanDisk also apparently lost interest in producing flash cards with an “NFC adaptor,” a device containing the chip and antenna that would protrude from the SD slot. A partner on that project, Canada-based Wireless Dynamics, later came out with some cards with adaptors.

But by that time, SanDisk had lost the initiative. Other specialty flash card suppliers, such as U.S.-based Tyfone and DeviceFidelity, would introduce microSD cards with built-in antennas, which are undergoing testing. These new cards would enable banks and other service providers to avoid the wait for NFC phones.

So although Vigier said he led SanDisk’s m-commerce and NFC activities through mid-2008, there appears to have been little for him to do on the NFC front after 2006.

Starbucks and PayPal
He then joined U.S.-based mFoundry, which makes platforms and applications for mobile banking and mobile payment. His work there is the most cited by journalists and bloggers, many quoting Vigier’s LinkedIn profile itself, in which he stated he “conceived and managed,” among other products, the Starbucks Card Mobile app on iPhones and PayPal Mobile on feature phones and BlackBerrys. 

Jon Squire, who oversaw the products as senior vice president of wallet and payments at mFoundry, confirmed to me by e-mail that Vigier led product development for all of mFoundry’s m-payment products.

But that apparently did not include PayPal Mobile, the network-based peer-to-peer mobile-payment service. A source close to PayPal told me the e-payments unit of eBay worked little with mFoundry on its PayPal Mobile app and doubts Vigier was involved at all.

Squire told me in a follow-up e-mail that mFoundry was involved with PayPal’s mobile offering within MyMoneyManager, a mobile wallet mFoundry produced for U.S. mobile carrier Sprint. The wallet, in effect, bookmarks mobile banking applications from a handful of banks, plus PayPal Mobile. Vigier led product development for Sprint's wallet. That is different, however, from the PayPal Mobile app, which PayPal apparently did mostly in-house. 

According to Squire, Vigier did head product development for Starbucks Card Mobile, which put the coffee chain’s prepaid payment card application onto the iPhone and iPod touch.

The huge chain announced in late March it had expanded the mobile-payment service to more than 1,000 outlets, located within Target discount retail stores. With more than 11,000 stores in the U.S., a national rollout by Starbucks of the m-payment service would be significant.

NFC industry backers, however, pointed out at the time that the 2-D bar code technology competes with NFC and is much-less secure. The only NFC project Vigier lists in LinkedIn during his time at mFoundry is an “NFC wallet” for a top three U.S. bank.

But Squire said Vigier was mFoundry’s point man and expert on NFC for “several initiatives that are not for public disclosure.” This combined with the Vigier’s other experience makes him a valuable catch for Apple, said Squire, who recently left mFoundry.

“In short, Apple is very lucky to have someone of Ben's caliber onboard,” he said.

Too Much Speculation
Just how much Vigier’s experience foretells Apple’s move into NFC or mobile payment is difficult to say. One source involved in mobile payment in the U.S. noted Vigier has not worked day-in, day-out, with NFC technology, as he would have had he been employed by an NFC chip maker, NFC application developer or trusted service manager, or had he led an NFC project through market launch for a mobile operator or service provider.

“He’s not an NFC expert; (and) as a product manager he’s pretty junior,” said the source. “It’s not like Apple is going to NFC because they hired Benjamin.”

On the few occasions I’ve interviewed Vigier about NFC, I found him to be savvy and knowledgeable. And he’s also a nice guy. He’d make a important addition to Apple’s NFC team and an able emissary for the technology if Apple does adopt the technology.

But the frenzy from bloggers and online journalists around the appointment reminds me a little bit of the flurry of stories last spring speculating that Apple was about to acquire NFC and contactless-payments vendor Vivotech. Those stories started from an innocent comment by an IDC analyst to a Bloomberg reporter, who blew it out of proportion. The story then got out of hand.

There’s more substance here with the Vigier story. Apple has indeed hired him as project manager for m-commerce. In addition, I put much stock in the rumors that Apple has ordered NFC chips from NXP. Apple, I believe, has been testing NFC for some time.

But so has every other major smartphone manufacturer, including BlackBerry maker Research in Motion and such Android handset makers as HTC, Samsung and LG. All are expected to have one or more NFC models out next year.

Lacking consistent and concentrated work on NFC the past six years and a payments-industry pedigree, Vigier’s appointment by itself tells us little that we didn’t already know about Apple’s likely move to NFC and less still about the device maker’s designs on retail payments.

 

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