When Google decided to create an iPhone version of its Google Wallet, it turned to Austin-based Mutual Mobile for help the same app developer that's quietly working on an overhaul of the Isis mobile wallet.
Mutual Mobile has been simultaneously working on the two mobile wallets for more than a year, PaymentsSource has learned from sources familiar with the initiatives. Isis, backed by wireless carriers AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, has tasked Mutual Mobile with redesigning its mobile app from the ground up ahead of the wallet's nationwide launch later this year.
Mutual Mobile did not create the first iteration of the Isis wallet, but the team working on the new app benefits from working in Austin, one of two cities (along with Salt Lake City) where Isis has been testing its wallet, sources tell PaymentsSource.
Meanwhile, Mutual Mobile worked alongside Google's team to develop the new iPhone version of Google Wallet that launched on Sept. 19; one day after Apple released its latest mobile operating system refresh, iOS 7. Google internally develops and maintains the Android version of Google Wallet, which was updated to reduce its reliance on Near Field Communication technology earlier this week.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment and representatives from Mutual Mobile and Isis did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite the potential conflicts of interest, the practice of competing initiatives hiring the same vendor is common in the payments industry, especially with mobile banking apps created for financial institutions, says Jordan McKee, a mobile marketing and commerce analyst at Yankee Group.
"Big name vendors like mFoundry and Kony frequently develop m-banking apps for financial institutions that are fierce competitors of each other," he says. "When companies find a vendor with a particular skill set that resonates with them, they tend to have little issue in partnering irrespective of who their existing clients are."
Still, it's noteworthy that such large projects would rely on a boutique app developer that's been flying under the radar, McKee says.
"Interestingly, Isis and Google Wallet both have a strong loyalty and couponing focus. I think that says something about Mutual Mobile and the capabilities they have in this area," he says. "It would also appear that Mutual Mobile has some expertise in revamping applications that were created by a previous developer."
To maintain the independence of the two projects, Mutual Mobile assigned separate teams to each wallet, with a "brick wall" between the groups to prevent sharing of information. It's unclear when, or if, Google and Isis became aware that they had both hired Mutual Mobile. The teams were so sealed off from each other that on at least one occasion, both groups scheduled meetings with Google and Isis representatives at the Mutual Mobile offices on the same day.
Mutual Mobile has handled other iOS projects for Google, notably an iPad app for Google Retail. Apple's mobile operating system is an area of weakness for the search giant, McKee says.
"Google just doesn't have a lot of experience working with the iOS platform. It's just not an area where they've done a lot, at least in terms of Google Wallet," McKee says.
Other past clients of Mutual Mobile include Samsung, Audi, Xerox, Cisco, and a social giving app for Citibank that was tied to the 2012 Summer Olympics.
"They want to be a premium provider working on bigger products with national name brands," says Robb Gaynor, CEO of mobile banking app developer Malauzai.
Gaynor's Austin-based firm considered hiring Mutual Mobile developers to augment its staff, but decided against it because Mutual Mobile was too expensive. He says the high demand for mobile technology developers and Mutual Mobile's roster of past marquee clients allows it to command rates in excess of $165 per hour, a premium over the $60 to $80 that independent developers charge.
"They charge premium hourly rates because they're in such high demand. They're the McKinsey & Co. to the app developer world," Gaynor says, referring to the prominent management consulting firm.
But in the future, Mutual Mobile may shift its focus away from being a professional services firm that builds one-off projects and become a product-oriented developer that maintains a suite of white-label apps that can be configured to clients' specific needs and branding, he says.
"Many professional services IT firms look for opportunities to build and launch products because, from an investment perspective, investors like product-based sales," Gaynor says. "Professional services sales are nonrepeatable, whereas service sales create recurring revenue opportunities."
McKee adds that this shift would be a natural evolution for a niche technology firm to pursue after building up its knowledge base and domain expertise. He cited LevelUp's move to offer a software development kit for its mobile payments technology as a recent example.
"If you have a company that has skills that they've developed working on a specific project, why not flip that around and monetize the work that they've done?" McKee adds.