Three years ago, the advent of mobile payments was expected to change the way the world does business.
A funny thing happened on the way to the future, though … or perhaps we should say something didn’t happen on the way to the future. Here we are, three years later — with more than enough technology in place — and mobile payments remain largely irrelevant.
However, that could be about to change, no thanks to any of the organizations the market assumed would be behind the development. Instead, a consortium that didn’t even exist a year ago might end up doing what Google (GOOG), Apple (AAPL), eBay’s (EBAY) PayPal, carriers like AT&T (T) and more have failed to do:
Create a mobile payment tool that the masses want to use.
What’s your favorite way to pay for something using your smartphone? You have plenty of options.
Google might be the dominant name in web search, but that dominance hasn’t bled over into the mobile payments arena. Though “Google Wallet” was highly lauded when it was unveiled in 2011, it has fizzled into a disappointment in the meantime. Rather than growing as expected in 2012, NFC transactions actually fell 40% last year, as early adopters found it clumsy and less convenient than just using a credit card.
Of course, it doesn’t help that Sprint (S) is the only major carrier that facilitates Google Wallet purchases. Why aren’t AT&T and Verizon (VZ) playing ball?
Because they’re still working on their own mobile payment technology/network — a group of companies putting together what is known is Isis. But the Isis mobile wallet is even more of a non-starter than Google Wallet is. Despite being unveiled two years ago, the service still is effectively in beta testing, only available in Salt Lake City and Austin.
Let’s not forget that usage of near-field communication payments — or even just smartphone scanning-based payments — is also limited by the lack of availability of the right hardware at the retailers’ point of sale. The needed phone-reading hardware is still unavailable in more places than it’s available.
In that light, Apple’s decision to forgo an NFC-based tool and simply use a screen-based one through its Passbook app seems like sheer genius. Even then, however, Passbook doesn’t effectively become a credit card unless the merchant has the right point-of-sale hardware and the consumer has the merchant pre-selected in the Passbook app as a vendor.
And therein lies the rub — too many choices. Unless the mobile carriers, the technology platforms, retailers and consumers can all agree on one tool, none of them will ever get the traction they need to become the industry standard.
Mobile carriers, phone makers, retailers and consumers have yet to agree on how mobile payments should work. That indecision has left the door wide open for a dark horse to define how mobile payments will work … an enviable position, as being the gatekeeper gives that company enormous leverage.
Even more interesting is that the dark horse’s mobile payment system is poised to actually deliver what customers want.
Skipping All the Middlemen
While Apple, Google, the Isis consortium and a few other players have been stumbling over their own efforts (and each others’) in the mobile payment space, fed-up retailers have taken matters into their own hands.
A group of companies that includes the likes of Walmart (WMT), Target (TGT), Best Buy (BBY), Sears (SHLD), Lowe’s (LOW) and at least 30 more have established their own mobile payment network, and will soon unveil their own app — one app — that makes smartphone-based shopping simple at all those stores.
The so-called Merchant Customer Exchange service isn’t available to consumers just yet. But, in April of this year, the group announced Gemalto would be building the mobile wallet piece of the puzzle. The announcement itself implies the whole shebang is nearing readiness.
Perhaps more important is that the so-called MCX clearly understands how consumers simply haven’t been served well by any of the current mobile payment services.
In November of last year, MCX’s Dodd Roberts was quoted as saying: “MCX intends to help change the payments status quo with a secure, customer-focused mobile platform that has a common set of standards.” In October, Walmart VP Mike Cook noted, “We’ve chosen MCX as the solution we’ll accept … We’re not going to spread our bets over seven or eight flavors of mobile payments.”
You don’t have to read too deeply between the lines to realize those are veiled shots at the current offerings of Apple, Google and other mobile payment players.
It’s not just self-serving rhetoric, either. Giving someone else control of your customers’ mobile payment experience sets you up to be the fall guy. It’s just good business to be in charge of every facet of the customer service you’re providing. The Merchant Customer Exchange’s participating members know this, and know too much is at stake to get it wrong … as most mobile payment players have so far.
Don’t be surprised if MCX is leading the mobile payment race a year from now, leaving the likes of Google and Apple behind.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.