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CommBank brings tap payments to any NFC-enabled Android smartphone

In the past, mobile contactless payments have been limited by smartphone compatibility or add-on hardware, but Commonwealth Bank customers can now tap to pay on virtually any Android smartphone.

Commonwealth Bank

Commonwealth Bank has officially introduced an update to its CommBank mobile app allowing customers to make Tap & Pay payments on any Android phone with NFC.

After a soft launch that came off the back of an app update on March 4, the feature is now available on any Android smartphone using Android 4.4 (KitKat) or later. The move marks a massive shift in mobile payments, which have previously relied on additional hardware in order to make Tap & Pay payments at NFC enabled card terminals.

CommBank itself utilised these kinds of hardware add-ons to facilitate cardless payments in the past, first with the iCarte case for iPhone which launched with its Kaching banking app, and more recently with the PayTag -- a small NFC sticker that attached to the back of a smartphone to enable tap payments.

However, thanks to an update built into Android 4.4 -- spotted in the CommBank app -- the combination of NFC connectivity and card security that enables tap payments can all be done through the phone itself, through a feature known as Host-based Card Emulation.

Android's Developer forums provide a quick explainer of how the feature works:

Many Android-powered devices that offer NFC functionality already support NFC card emulation. In most cases, the card is emulated by a separate chip in the device, called a secure element. Many SIM cards provided by wireless carriers also contain a secure element.

Android 4.4 introduces an additional method of card emulation that does not involve a secure element, called host-based card emulation. This allows any Android application to emulate a card and talk directly to the NFC reader.

Tap & Pay is available to CommBank customers using debit cards issued by MasterCard, though the bank says there is potential to roll it out further in future. According to Lisa Frazier, CommBank's executive general manager of digital channels, the feature is just another way offering a "simple, convenient and safe way to bank".

"That's what our customers care about and that's what we care about," she said.

The feature was spotted early by a number of Google Play users, including tech blogger Beau Giles, who reported early successes with Tap & Pay.

The CommBank app update has found some early positive reviews. Screenshot by Claire Reilly/CNET

While it's all systems go on the Android front, CommBank is a more guarded when it comes to contactless payments on iOS. Although Apple has been very busy spruiking its new Apple Pay feature, especially off the back of the launch of the Apple Watch, Frazier declined to comment on CommBank's plans for Apple Pay, or indeed when it would be making its way to Australia.

Despite that, the latest Tap & Pay news comes off the back of a busy time in mobile banking for Commonwealth Bank and the wider banking sector in general.

Last year, CommBank advanced its "mobile wallet agenda" with Cardless Cash, allowing customers to access money at an ATM using an access code and PIN sent to their mobile phone. The bank's competitors also upped the ante in mobile banking in 2014, with St George introducing mobile banking for wearables and fingerprint access for its app, and ANZ announcing a new for customers, set to arrive in the early stages of this year.

Updated on Tuesday March 11, 2015 at 3:50 p.m. AEDT: Included comments from CommBank, further details about official launch and availability, and comments on Apple Pay.