I'm sure you've seen those anti-cash commercials from Visa (NYSE: V ) . You know, the ones where life runs smoothly as long as you use a Visa card, but grinds to a halt when someone dares to pull out dollar bills at the register. "Life takes Visa," and anything less makes you a Luddite barbarian.
That's old news now. The next revolution in retail payments is almost here, and it doesn't include opening your wallet at all. Based on near field communications technology, or NFC, a plethora of tech and banking players are introducing their takes on how to pay for your milk and cookies with a swipe of your smartphone. Even if you forgot your wallet in the car, the digital leash is never far away, right?
A handful of Android and Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) BlackBerry phones support NFC today. Nokia (NYSE: NOK ) just launched its first, and possibly only, MeeGo phone, complete with NFC chips and software. That trickle of NFC-enabled phones will become an avalanche in 2012 as RIM has committed to including it on "many, if not most" BlackBerrys in 2011 and the Android gang keeps marching on. If Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) doesn't include NFC support in the soon-to-launch iPhone 5, it's nearly a lock for next year's model.
How do I invest in that?
Conventional wisdom has long pointed to chip designer NXP Semiconductors (Nasdaq: NXPI ) as the easiest way to invest in the NFC trend. The company is an early leader in NFC chip technology and has landed most of the smartphone contracts so far.
But there's a change in the weather. Semiconductor generalist Broadcom (Nasdaq: BRCM ) just rolled out a line of NFC chips of its own, and tech titan Samsung also has an alternative solution on hand. The first consumer-level products with Broadcom's NFC chips should hit store shelves in about nine months.
With competitive juices on the rise, it would be easy to turn your NFC-centric investor attention back to the credit card companies, which play a key role in handling NFC payments. But I wouldn't go there, personally.
To my mind, NXP remains the best way to ride the NFC wave. Sure, Broadcom's chips are poised to steal some market share -- but the market itself is absolutely exploding. There's plenty of room for several providers to grow as handset builders ramp up their NFC efforts. Not only that, but NXP also owns a lot of the technology that makes NFC work. So when Broadcom ships these chips (say that three times fast!) in volume, the company will start sending checks to NXP or else set itself up for one of those painful patent infringement battles.
Hey! Isn't that a patent troll?
Longtime readers might accuse me of doublespeak here, as I often criticize companies for exploring the patent-suit road to easy riches at the expense of real innovation. In particular, VirnetX (AMEX: VHC ) makes claims to 4G wireless security technologies that compare to NXP's leadership position in NFC security. Why do I love one but pour scorn over the other?
That's a complex question, but it all boils down to these two things:
- NXP actually builds and sells products based on its own patented technologies, and it takes an active part in promoting the use of NFC. VirnetX and its ilk don't do any of that, aiming instead for easy paychecks when others turn their supposedly essential patents into a retail success. That's the difference between a real business and a nonpracticing entity, or patent troll.
- VirnetX often claims to be essential to 4G security, but standards bodies have yet to actually endorse those calls for attention. On the other hand, NXP is a sponsor member of the NFC Forum and can back up its supposed importance.
Don't just take my word for it: NXP is also a four-star CAPS stock and a recent Rule Breakers pick, underscoring both broad and high-powered support for my line of thinking. VirnetX? One CAPS star and a stock selling for more than 20,000 times trailing sales. Ouch.
So I'm doing a couple of things I should have done a long time ago: putting my Foolish reputation where my mouth is. I believe that NXP is a crucial player in the NFC hypergrowth story with the technical chutzpah to match, while VirnetX is a speculative gamble without substance. I just rated one as a long-term outperformer in our CAPS system, and the other got a big, red thumb pointing down. Can you guess which one is which? Follow in my All-Star footsteps by rating NXP here or VirnetX right here, whether you agree with me or not.