Despite bold moves on mobile payments, long haul ahead

NFC wireless payments get a boost from Android, BlackBerry and three ISIS wireless carriers, but adoption remains a concern

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Even though the ISIS carriers are working with Barclays and Discover, Egan predicted that they will also issue their own ISIS credit cards eventually, to be carried alongside an NFC phone. "ISIS wants to become their own credit card company and ecosystem," Egan said. "I fully believe the cellular operators will issue plastic."

Both Visa and MasterCard, the two biggest credit card companies, have launched many mobile payment technology trials, including with NFC, analysts said. In one example, Reuters recently reported that Visa and Bank of America were beginning a test program of mobile payments for retail purchases.

Neither company could be reached to comment on their current plans for mobile payments or their reaction to the ISIS formation.

It is possible that major banks and credit card companies don't see a need to work with mobile carriers directly, since mobile payments will account for only a tiny portion of all retail purchases even though they are likely to grow tremendously in coming years.

Egan said that many analysts have forecast a doubling of mobile phones used for mobile payments by 2014, but the total value of the transactions will still be small -- only 1% to 3% of the amount of transactions conducted through credit cards or checks.

"Some of the forecasts are trying to drive hype in the market [for mobile payments], but even if you have four times as many handsets with NFC chips in the next two years, that's still a rounding error compared to purchases made with MasterCard of Amex," he said. "Those forecasts are not putting things in context."

Still, mobile payments do excite many users who would find the phone a convenient way to quickly buy a snack or pay for a train ticket, some analysts said.

Japan and Korea "lead the world in mobile commerce, largely because their [mobile payment] technology is inside the SIM card in their phones," said Howard Wilcox, an analyst at Juniper Research.

Wilcox said NFC is not only going to be valuable for making payments, but will also help companies with mobile marketing. In one example, he said an NFC phone could be passed over a smart poster to download a coupon or a link to a Web site to watch a movie trailer or find other content. "NFC is a lot more than payments," he added.

The U.S. carriers in ISIS could be taking tips from wireless carrier NTT DoCoMo in Japan, which has 55 million customers and promotes NFC payments on its Web site, Wilcox noted.

Wilcox conceded that aside from some parts of Asia, in most of the world, NFC has faced a "number of hurdles, with some still to come."

Juniper has forecast that nearly half of all mobile phone users globally will pay for digital or physical goods with a mobile device by 2014, an increase of nearly 1 billion users compared to 2010. Its forecast includes all types of mobile payments, not just NFC.

Gartner has forecast a doubling of mobile payment users by 2012.

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 e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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