Flint has released an Android version of its swipeless mobile card acceptance product, which relies on the smartphone's embedded camera to scan an image of a card to accept payments.

By not requiring add-on hardware, Flint aims to attract small businesses that are not looking for an ambitious overhaul of how they handle payments. Many rivals offer add-on "dongles" to read swiped or EMV-chip card payments, and vendors such as Square, Groupon, Intuit and Leaf are pushing to add more features to appeal to larger merchants.

"The dongle is more retail-focused instead of a mobile payment solution that focuses on businesspeople," says Greg  Goldfarb, co-founder and CEO of Flint Mobile. "Small business is not one-size-fits-all. We see segmentation, with businesses like photographers, consultants, fitness trainers, IT professionals and other business people whose needs are very different than a coffee shop."

Flint's Android app, launched this week, follows up its iPad rollout about a year ago. Flint offers near-instant processing; online registration; settings for logos, receipts, sales taxes and tips; integrated social marketing; and reporting tools that track transaction history, customer contact information and social media activity.

"It's a customizable app, so a small business can make it their own," Goldfarb says.

Flint, which charges 1.95% for debit card payments and 2.95% for credit cards, says it is not trying to compete with companies like Square and Leaf. "The other companies are more about disrupting cash registers with an iPad," Goldfarb says.

Tantrum Street, another mobile payments company, is also relying on the smartphone's embedded camera to scan card images.  PayPal also uses card-scanning technology, provided by its Card.io unit, in its PayPal Here mobile acceptance app.

"With the camera, you don't have to worry about managing other equipment," Goldfarb says.

Camera-based apps are easier for businesses to manage, says Rick Oglesby, a senior analyst at Aite Group.

"There's less for the merchant to carry around," he says. "The merchant will almost always have his or her phone, but not always have the dongle, so the camera ensures the merchant is always prepared."

However, camera-based transactions are "card not present," which are more expensive than swiped card-present transactions, Oglesby says. It's also not a customary experience for consumers, and can create the impression that the merchant is trying to steal the consumer's card number by taking a photo of the card, he says.

However, PayPal's approach "makes a lot of sense," Oglesby says. "They embedded [Card.io] into PayPal Here so that the app would have both options."

Camera-based systems also have challenges in reading the card data, but these may be offset by the convenience they add, says Gareth Lodge, a senior analyst at Celent. "I found the error rate on scanning business cards not good enough, and typically they're easier to read…but not having to have a dongle with you I think is a real plus," Lodge says.

Goldfarb says he hasn't heard of issues with scanning, as long as numbers are readable to the human eye. "You can also type in the number in should the camera have any issues," he says. 

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