PALM BEACH, Fla.—Few at the Electronic Transaction Association's Strategic Leadership Forum would deny Apple Pay could help prepare the nation for mobile payments and rescue Near Field Communication from obscurity.

Yet they didn’t think Apple’s system could bring those changes without some outside assistance, and they couldn’t say how and when those seismic shifts will occur.

The fact that a company as big as Apple is taking an interest in the payments industry should have major impact eventually, said conference speaker Diane Offereins, executive vice president of payments for Discover Financial Services.

“Apple is the most successful company of our generation,” noted another speaker, Ben Katz, CEO of

The card brands and major retailers lined up to cooperate with Apple in its payments venture in an unprecedented show of force, said speaker Dan Rosen, partner in Commerce VC. The resulting momentum for mobile payments represents the technology’s best chance for proliferation, he said.

“If this doesn’t work, nothing will,” Rosen said of Apple Pay’s boost for mobile payments.

It bodes well for Apple Pay and for the entire payments industry that Apple built its payments venture into the established system instead of circumventing the industry, said speaker Robert Byrne, McKinsey &Co. partner and leader, payments practice.

“This is ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’” Byrne said, adding that Google and others have tried to establish their own payments systems outside the prevailing industry structure.

Still, Apple Pay hasn’t escorted the payments industry to the “tipping point” that will bring an immediate shift to paying with phones and using NFC, he said.

Even Apple, whose phones, tablets and other products have captured the nation’s imagination, may face challenges in persuading merchants to accept Apple Pay, suggested Offereins. She noted that Discover has labored for 30 years to convince businesses to take its cards.

“What are you thinking,” she asked rhetorically of new entrants to payments, including Apple. “This is hard work.”

Even with Apple in the mix, making the public comfortable with paying by phone could take three years, according to another speaker, Sean Banks, a partner at TVV Capital.

Moreover, the powerhouse retailers that formed the Merchant Customer Exchange, or MCX, have their own mobile wallet to promote and won’t cooperate with Apple, Banks said. Shoppers who can’t use Apple Pay at stores operated by MCX members like Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy may literally forget Apple’s payment method, he suggested.

Apple Pay simply won’t achieve ubiquity, predicted speaker Zach Sadek, principle at Parthenon Capital Partners. It appears that several players could succeed simultaneously, he said.

What’s more, the relatively high-income crowd at the conference may have an inflated view of the importance of Apple, Katz said, noting that the less-affluent buy Android smartphones. In fact, 75% of the smartphones sold in the U.S. last year were Android, he noted.

That’s why Apple’s payments venture is causing a bigger stir in the payments industry than elsewhere, he suggested.

During Apple’s recent press conference on what’s new at the company, speakers devoted seven minutes the company’s watch and 95 seconds to payments, Katz said.

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