There is a surge of activity in person-to-person payments, with the biggest banks going head-to-head with technology giant Google and other significant rivals.

In the past week alone, Square Inc. unveiled its Square Cash email-based P2P service and clearXchange, a bank-founded P2P initiative launched in 2011, welcomed its first non-founding member in Colorado-based FirstBank.

Last month, Pittsburgh, Pa.-based PNC added Fiserv's Popmoney P2P service to its primary mobile banking application. Days later, Google debuted a new version of its Google Wallet app that treats P2P as the main function.

It's something of a gold rush, says Mike Kennedy, clearXchange's CEO.

"There are $900 billion worth of P2P transactions annually in the U.S.," Kennedy says. "Most of that is with checks and cash, and P2P providers are looking to reduce the use of cash and checks and offer a better consumer experience."

ClearXchange is also responding to "the voice of the customer," Kennedy says, as there is consumer demand for an easier way to move money.

However, there have been several false starts in P2P payments in recent years, and although clearXchange and its rivals paint a rosy picture of their prospects, they offer few specifics to measure adoption.

Tom Trebilcock, vice president of digital at PNC, says P2P adoption was slow during the first couple of years the bank offered it. "But it grew by 30% last year, and that was growth on an already big number," he adds.

At clearXchange, Kennedy would say only that it is seeing "great adoption" from both the quantitative and qualitative sides.

Kennedy became CEO last month. He was previously an executive vice president at Wells Fargo, which founded clearXchange with JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America. While at Wells Fargo, Kennedy was also clearXchange's chairman.

Mobile technology makes it more practical to replace checks and cash with a digital payment, Kennedy says.

In 2001, when many banks first introduced the concept, "P2P meant money transfers within the bank, sending money from your account to someone else with an account at the same bank," he says. Participants had to ask friends if they were registered for P2P and obtain their bank account number to send money.

Today, P2P participants need to register with their bank or clearXchange once, and then the money transfers can be made simply by knowing someone's e-mail address or cell phone number, Kennedy says.

Square Cash and Google operate on the same premise, allowing consumers to send payments the same way they would compose an email. Google's system is tied to its Gmail interface or its Google Wallet app, whereas Square Cash works from any email address. Square offers an app, but the app is purely optional — the Square Cash app simply walks the consumer through the process of filling out an email with Square copied as a recipient.

 "Our goal was to remove the barrier to entry so that anyone could participate, anywhere, no matter if they were on their computer, iPad, or phone," says Square spokesperson Katie Baynes.

Historically, online payment acceptance has been complex with lengthy signup processes that would require the user to provide checking account numbers and other personal information, Baynes adds.  "We've enabled anyone to accept a payment simply by entering their debit card number and it's deposited directly into their bank account," Baynes says.

In addition to JPMorgan Chase's participation in clearXchange, the bank offers a P2P service called QuickPay, which it highlighted in a 2012 Superbowl ad.

P2P has become a symbol of how technology can evolve through word of mouth and social media, PNC's Trebilcock says.

"If you use it, and find it to be successful, then you tell friends how they can interact with it," Trebilcock says. "We haven't cracked the code on how to gauge that [word-of-mouth converts], but our job is to make P2P as easy and as secure as possible."

Some banks may position P2P as the stepping stone to other mobile services, but PNC positions it "as an arrow in the quiver," one of many services to use, he says.

It's difficult to say if the growing number of P2P services is based on consumer adoption, says Zil Bareisis, a London-based senior analyst for research firm Celent. "There is certainly an element of 'me too' about all the P2P launches," he says.

The P2P market is divided into services tied to bank accounts and services tied to digital wallets, Bareisis notes.

PayPal, Google Wallet, Square and other wallet providers see P2P as an important function to round out a digital wallet because ubiquity with customers is essential to these providers, Bareisis says.

However, banks are a significant adversary to these technology companies, he says.

"Bank accounts have one important advantage," Bareisis says. "They don't need to be pre-funded, because the money is already in the account."

The bank-based P2P services may come from technology providers such as Fiserv's Popmoney or FIS's People Pay. A bank can develop its own P2P, as Barclays did with Pingit, or get involved with a consortium, as clearXchange. In the UK, VocaLink plans to launch a P2P service, Bareisis says.

And more players are likely to catch on to the trend, says Celent's Bareisis.

"P2P is capturing the imagination of players globally," Bareisis says. "It's just a natural and obvious capability to have."

In the early days of P2P everyone was talking about "splitting the lunch check," but the application has become much broader, in some cases transforming into a tool for small businesses, Bareisis says.

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