I’m guessing that at least a few eyebrows were raised this week when T-Mobile USA, Verizon Wireless and AT&T announced the joint venture Isis, which aims to create a national mobile payments network. While I agree that it’s often shocking to see the carriers find consensus on anything, their collaboration is almost always a sign that beneath the toasting champagne flutes lies a great big pile of cash.
Those things we’ve seen the carriers unite around in the past are usually huge undertakings (the Worldwide Applications Consortium (WAC) and the early interoperablity challenges surrounding implementation of SMS in the United States come to mind). They’re also initiatives that in the end center around industry-wide and grossly profitable products. This doesn’t mean that these moments of amicability always get the best results, but is anyone going to deny that apps and SMS are hugely important parts of a carrier’s business?
Mobile payments are no different. Sure, NFC has been talked about for eons now, and we’ve seen little in the results column save for contacless debit and credit cards, and maybe a few targeted mobile payment programs like the one Starbucks recently rolled out. Certainly we haven’t seen anything that signals the true standardization of the technology, nor has there been the incentive for an entire country’s merchants to retool their point-of-sale hardware.
Google’s Eric Schmidt can talk all he wants about an Android phone that’s capable of mobile payments, but as it stands right now, the person who whips out their smartphone to pay for a pack of gum at the gas station will either be laughed at or arrested.
The Isis announcement is a signal that this is a challenge that simply cannot bear fragmentation if it is to survive. The carriers are aware that a unified approach on all levels is necessary if mobile payments are to become a widely adopted tool. I’m not sure exactly how they’ll take their cut, or whether this will be considered a value-add, but I guarantee you that there’s an executive or two (and in more than one industry) who sees a pot of gold when he pictures someone whipping out a smartphone to pay for an Extra Value Meal.
The mobile wallet will inevitably become a reality. The idea of totally electronic payments is simply too attractive to consumers, if not the financial institutions and carriers that will profit from every transaction. The convenience (and let’s be honest, that’s exactly what the American economy is based on) of not having to rifle through a wallet for a piece of plastic sounds too good to be true.
What’s most perplexing about the carriers’ hand holding may be that they’re not holding hands with the right people. Visa and Mastercard have been left out in the cold on this one, which seems like the wrong strategy to me. Visa and Mastercard have not only experience in this area of contactless payments but also loads of customers they could bring along for the ride.
I don’t doubt that it’s more complicated than the few thoughts I’ve laid out here. I’m just wondering if the carriers realize the complexity of the situation. I’m sure as time goes on we’ll get the nitty gritty on what the carriers have in mind. The United States is way behind Europe and Japan on this one, so the more cooks in the kitchen, the better, just so long as the cooks remember that too many hands in the pot never get the meal to the table.