Payments geeks, as many spring payments industry conference attendees describe themselves, are hitting the road this month in droves and bracing for some amusing ironies.
Many of those who attended NACHA's Payments 2012 conference in Baltimore this week, and those packing for next week's 24th annual Card Forum & Expo in Orlando and FinovateSpring 2012 in San Francisco, have rare mobile payment prototype phones in their pockets that few consumers possess.
Various bank employees typically participate in mobile-payment pilots and subsequently are among the front lines of those testing and experimenting with Near Field Communication-enabled phones.
It is not uncommon to see participants in these pilots eagerly comparing unusual applications on their handheld phones or holding impromptu private demonstrations in conference halls with a small crowd of observers gathered around.
Older-style flip phones lacking Internet access are virtually extinct within this group.
At Finovate, such demonstrations will take place in rapid succession as 30 presenters per day line up to get one shot to demonstrate each new payment technology in front of a live audience.
Representatives of rival mobile-wallet startups, from PayPal Inc. to Google Wallet to Isis, will rub shoulders in taxi lines and on panels during conference sessions, reluctant to divulge too many inside details because of the highly competitive atmosphere surrounding these initiatives.
At one panel during NACHA's conference, a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. representative was seated an inch away from a bank holding company representative during a tense exchange on who should set U.S. payments industry policy around interchange.
"We'll never agree," Mario de Armas, Wal-Mart senior director, international payments, and Thomas P. Ormseth, senior vice president of noncredit services at Lake Forest, Ill.-based Wintrust Financial Corp., both concluded, before shaking hands.
Alternative payments are of top interest to people on the traditional banking side of things.
A session describing basics of alternative payments on May 2 was filled to overflowing capacity.
Tony Hayes, a partner with Oliver Wyman, was temporarily mobbed when he offered free copies of a relatively dense, 100-page book entitled, "The Regulation of Traditional and Alternative Payments."
More than one speaker at NACHA used a slide noting Starbucks Corp.'s closed-loop mobile-payment app, which was clearly popular with payments geeks who have studied it as an example of a how to drive rapid, broad adoption of a mobile payment application.
Ironically, the Starbucks outlet located inside Baltimore Convention Center, where NACHA'S event took place, was one of the relatively few contract-operator locations that lacks the mobile-payment card readers, which frustrated hundreds of attendees who stood in line there throughout the event.
And on May 2, the conference center's Starbucks prepaid card acceptance system broke down altogether, forcing attendees to pay with cash or other means.
The rapid pace of payment technology is extreme, but it still has a ways to go.
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