If planners of the Isis mobile wallet joint venture had one thing to do over again, it might be to avoid such an early proclamation that a product launch in Salt Lake City and Austin, Texas would take place this past summer. That launch has not yet occurred.
Any uncertainty in mobile wallet development fuels speculation in an industry anxious to see what shape mobile commerce will ultimately take. In this industry, products that make it even farther than where Isis is today don't always work out.
PayPal Inc.'s mobile-play plans once relied in part on Bling Nation Ltd., a company that enabled payments at the point of sale by letting users put payment stickers on their phones — that project failed when Bling Nation did. Two years ago, Citigroup tested a person-to-person payment system from Obopay Inc., but decided there was not enough demand for a full rollout.
Isis, a venture of AT&T, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile USA, says its delays are not a sign of long-term trouble. It plans another announcement this month to update merchants and consumers about the much-anticipated launch. According to the news site Android Central, it may launch as soon as Oct. 22.
Recent speculation about Isis centers on reports from anonymous sources that the U.S. telecommunications companies behind the venture have poured another $150 million into the Near Field Communication-based mobile wallet project. That’s on top of the reported $100 million that jump-started the effort two years ago.
A delay of a project the size of Isis is not surprising in the payments industry, says Eric Grover, a consultant specializing in alliances at Minden, Nev.-based Intrepid Ventures. “It’s also not surprising that Goliath mobile phone operations like these would spend a lot of money on a joint venture,” Grover adds.
When contacted, Isis declined to comment on the project’s budget or recent funding as it relates, or doesn’t relate, to the recent delays. Isis executives speaking at various industry conferences say fine-tuning and attention to last-minute details as they relate to security and customer experience were main causes for the delay.
“We have to make sure all of the payment credentials are in a secure vault, and that process takes some time,” John Theiss, vice president of merchant sales for Isis, said at a conference last week. “When the consumer goes into a store and taps his phone with the Isis wallet at a payment terminal, it has to be flawless.”
If Isis launches with an unpolished product, it could face harsh criticism from users. Google's mobile wallet, which launched last year, had a flaw that allowed hackers to access stored funds by deleting a user's PIN. Even today, some users complain that the Google Wallet's contactless payment capability is too easily blocked by things like a third-party case or battery cover.
At this point, any inkling of progress with Isis becomes a story.
Such was the case last week when an Isis technology partner, Micros Systems Inc., issued a press release indicating the Isis mobile wallet was in use at restaurants in New Jersey. Though it looked and smelled like a launch, upon closer review those restaurants turned out to be in cafeterias at the headquarters of Verizon Wireless, thus amounting to one of the venture partners operating an in-house test.
Theiss also says Isis welcomes competition from other mobile wallet developers, and that the early stages of wallet technology development should not be viewed as a war that will ultimately establish a clear winner.
Isis even said it welcomed competition from Google in Salt Lake City, one of the planned Isis testing grounds, when Google negotiated use of the Google Wallet in a major supermarket chain there.
Regardless of when Isis launches or how much money ultimately goes into the project, the joint venture partners face significant challenges, Grover says.
“Let’s say they architect the most wonderful mobile wallet ever, it would still be too early to tell how successful it might be because there are so many others out there [in various stages of development],” Grover says.
Isis still has to develop a critical mass of acceptance, and of those who can use the wallet through an NFC-enabled phone, Grover adds. “The key premise is that the three mobile phone companies are promising the potential of some 200 million subscribers.”
Even if Isis is able to overcome those obstacles, the main bugaboo of mobile payments remains, Grover says. “You still have to provide consumers with a compelling reason to use the mobile wallet instead of a piece of plastic, which remains pretty easy to use,” he says.