Big jump in mobile payments expected, but not with NFC in U.S.

Gartner sees SMS and Web payments making up a majority of mobile payments into 2016

Mobile payments will reach $171 billion globally in 2012, a 62% increase over last year's total of $105.9 billion, according to research firm Gartner Inc.

That increase corresponds with a 32% rise in mobile payment users expected this year. The number of users is expected to hit 212 million users, up from 160.5 million in 2011.

The forecast, announced Tuesday, also pegs mobile transaction values at $617 billion, with 448 million users, by 2016, Gartner said in a statement.

Mobile payments have been popular for years in Japan and South Korea, primarily for transit rides and small retail purchases, using Near Field Communication (NFC) technology. NFC usage is still low in the U.S. and Europe, partly because relatively few smartphones and NFC-ready networks and terminals are in use, various experts have noted.

Gartner also counts in its mobile payments tally the use of Short Message Service (SMS), commonly called texting, and Web or Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). SMS is dominant in developing countries for mobile payments, while Web purchases from smartphones and tablets comprise the most popular method of mobile payment in the U.S. and Europe.

Web/WAP access is expected to make up 88% of mobile payments in the U.S. even as late as 2016, when NFC usage is expected to increase, Gartner predicted.

"NFC payment involves a change in user behavior and requires collaboration among stakeholders that includes banks, mobile carriers, card networks and merchants," said Gartner analyst Sandy Shen. "It takes time for both to happen, so we don't expect NFC payments to come into the mass market before 2015."

Online purchases from mobile devices in North America and Europe are enhanced by major e-retailers such as Amazon and eBay, and by innovations such as the Starbucks' Card mobile app, which relies on barcode scanning from a smartphone to deduct money from a pre-loaded Starbucks card, Shen said.

Considering that money transfers with smartphones and airtime top-ups for smartphones make up most of the mobile transactions in developing markets, regions like Asia-Pacific and Africa will account for more than 60% of mobile payments globally in 2016, Gartner said. In that year, Africa will be the biggest region for mobile payment transaction value, followed by Asia/Pacific, then North America.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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