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Why Google and Apple Are Quieter About Recent Mobile-Pay Developments

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Google's initial launch of its mobile wallet at a special event in New York last year was a flashy affair meant to showcase every feature and every partnership. Its approach this year is much more low-key, as is that of its rival Apple.

This shift in messaging may indicate that mobile-pay products are past the novelty phase and must now prove themselves as viable alternatives to cards and cash.

Google's updates to its mobile wallet this year have been targeted and practical. It had a hard time convincing issuers to integrate with Google Wallet, so it switched to an approach that required barely any participation on the part of banks. The Google-branded virtual prepaid card, a relic of Google's earlier approach to bank partnerships, was phased out quietly. Google no longer makes a big deal about each new issuer and each new phone model that supports Google Wallet.

Apple, in turn, did not treat its Passbook wallet as the indispensable "one more thing" when it unveiled the iPhone 5. Apple didn't even rush to support Passbook with its own shopping app — it added Apple-branded e-Gift cards in November, two months after Passbook's launch.

Google would not provide an interview for this story, and Apple did not respond to a reporter's inquiry.

Both companies face competition from the mobile carriers' Isis venture, the Starbucks-Square partnership and smaller players such as Lemon Inc. and SCVNGR's LevelUp. PayPal, a unit of eBay Inc., is also a growing threat in point of sale payments.

The Isis venture is backed by AT&T, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile USA. It launched its long-awaited pilots in October in Salt Lake City and Austin, Texas. Although Isis is publicizing its technology heavily in those markets, it is making no promises about how long the test will run or when it plans to expand to other cities.

"Isis is very clearly determined to be very meticulous and slow and make sure everything is right before they expend," says Dave Kaminsky, an analyst at Boston-based Mercator Advisory Group.

Isis and Google are likely trying to keep their competitors in the dark about how their products are evolving, says Kaminsky.

While Kaminsky says Isis' slow and steady strategy will not change, Google does have a foot-up on the telecommunications trifecta because it was first to market. But will Google be able to maintain its head start?

The biggest obstacle Google and Isis face is Apple. The notoriously secretive company has defied expectations year after year by refusing to build a near field communication chip into the iPhone. NFC chips are an essential part of Google and Isis' process for making payments at the point of sale.

Industry analysts had opposing views about whether Apple's move to exclude NFC was right for the company and the payments market.

While Google and Isis try and convince consumers to use NFC, Apple is waiting for the technology to gather more momentum, says Kaminsky.

"Apple has a close enough following that once NFC becomes a big deal, most of their followers will wait for Apple to launch [NFC]," he says. Apple "is waiting for NFC to be advantageous."

While Kaminsky doesn't see Apple's exclusion of NFC as a "deathblow," he does say the move was bad for the payments market in that it prevents Apple devotees from testing NFC-based features.

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