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Are mobile wallets the next Betamax?

By Claes Bell ·
Friday, October 26, 2012
Posted: 12 pm ET

This week, Isis -- a new mobile payments service created jointly by AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon -- debuted in Austin, Texas, and Salt Lake City. Right now, those carriers offer nine different phones with the programming and hardware needed to use the service built in and have plans to offer 11 more by the end of the year.

The service works similarly to Google Wallet. You link the app to a credit card you already have, or you can load cash onto a prepaid debit card provided by the service. After that, all you have to do is start up the app at the register and touch the phone to the payment terminal and the purchase is complete. Right now, three banks are participating: Capital One, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and American Express.

Also like Google Wallet, Isis would eventually work as a sort of mobile coupon envelope, giving consumers the ability to redeem promotions and get bonuses credited to loyalty cards automatically with each mobile wallet purchase.

That's great and all, especially for the mobile wallet providers looking to make money running promotions for different retailers and maybe even get in on some juicy interchange fees. But as CNET writer Marguerite Reardon noted this week, there's just not much reason for consumers to jump on to the mobile banking bandwagon yet:

In order for even the most modest growth projections to come to fruition, these companies will have to solve the same fundamental problem that plagued mobile payments back in 2006 when I was writing about Nokia's NFC-enabled devices. They will have to give consumers a good reason to tap their phones or scan a code within a smartphone app, instead of pulling out their credit cards.

"As with many new technologies, initially the offer may not be as compelling as it needs to be to attract users," said Noah Elkin, principal analyst at eMarketer and author of the report on mobile payments. "Tapping a phone instead of swiping a credit card isn't that compelling. So the industry needs to come up with solutions that gives people a reason to use their phone instead of a plastic credit card."

That jibes with what Mary Monahan, executive vice president and research director at Javelin Strategy & Research, told me last month when Apple declined to support mobile payments with its new iPhone 5:

"In the U.S., we've got this great way to pay already. We can use cards. It works very well," Monahan says. "What most people are focusing on is just the payments, and that's not going to do it for most consumers. They're going to have to change the payment experience."

There's a memorable scene in the '80s Tom Hanks movie "Big," where the executives at a toy company are trying out a new transformer that turns from a robot into a skyscraper. As they drone on about all the demographics the toy will appeal to, Tom Hanks' character, who has the brain of a grade-school kid and all the moxie that entails, looks at the robot and says, "I don't get it."

You see a little bit of that going on with mobile wallets right now. Outside of a few hardcore technology aficionados, American consumers are looking at a phone that turns into a wallet and saying, "What's fun about that?"

Right now, mobile payments providers don't seem to have a convincing answer.

What do you think? Is the mobile wallet the next Betamax? Do you see yourself switching to a mobile wallet? If you have, how do you like it?

Follow me on Twitter: @ClaesBell.

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December 08, 2012 at 4:45 pm

I completely disagree. I would LOVE to use my phone to pay, especially if it keeps track of coupons, customer appreciation programs, etc. I hate all those customer loyalty cards and tags hanging on my keychain. How wonderful it would be to knock out my errands and shopping with only my phone in tow!

Alex Johnson
November 29, 2012 at 11:33 am

I agree with what Phil Schiller of Apple said, “It’s not clear that NFC is the solution to any current problem.” In fact I would go a step further to add that it opens up the door for a plethora of new problems. Apple is known for introducing products that solve problems users currently face. If they took a pass on introducing a mobile wallet with the iPhone 5, that's all the evidence you need to conclude that no one has yet come up with a compelling use case for mobile wallets.

October 27, 2012 at 7:54 am

I agree. I have little desire to switch to a new method of payment. I have used goggle wallet online where it's way more convenient than pay pal.