To say the Softcard mobile wallet had an interesting year would be an understatement.
The telco-led joint venture, previously called Isis, was first stung by competitors' rapid adoption of host card emulation, a new technology that undermined Softcard's advantage in using the phones' secure element for Near Field Communication contactless payments. This change, introduced in the KitKat version of the Android mobile operating system, finally enabled Google Wallet to support contactless payments on any carrier's network.
As the year progressed, the Isis wallet found that its name was rapidly becoming associated with a violent Islamic terrorist group in the Middle East. Inevitably, the mobile wallet changed its name, scrapping any brand recognition it had up to that point.
By the end of 2014, Apple changed the mobile payment landscape. Its newly launched Apple Pay wallet was a clear competitor to Softcard, but the new NFC-equipped iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus handsets could finally enable Softcard payments without any kind of add-on hardware.
Before Apple Pay burst on the mobile payments scene, Softcard was clearly the most aggressive in marketing and promoting its mobile wallet. The company, a venture of T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, even began offering users $150 Amazon gift cards if they signed up friends.
Softcard fully intends to ride the wave that Apple Pay created, and continues to make noise of its own as the Android choice for mobile payments, said Jaymee Johnson, head of marketing for Softcard.
"We have benefited by Apple Pay's entry, but it's not just that," Johnson said. "Several months ago we announced our partnership with Subway and they are rolling out NFC terminals to all 26,000 restaurants across the country."
Softcard intends to be considered a valuable NFC payment option as the technology becomes more settled in the U.S.
"If you look at the ecosystem, you have quite literally hundreds of millions of NFC handsets in place [in 2015] and you have the EMV [chip-based card] mandate accelerating turnover of terminals and deploying with NFC," Johnson said.
Softcard points to Salt Lake City and Austin, where it tested its wallet prior to its nationwide launch in late 2013, as an example of where the U.S. is headed. Today, as a result of Softcard and other companies' efforts, consumers in those markets are three or four times more active in their mobile wallet use than the rest of the country, Johnson said.
But now the key for Softcard will be making sure its wallet is better than what Apple Pay offers, said Thad Peterson, senior analyst with Boston-based Aite Group.
"The user experience with Apple Pay is outrageously good," Peterson said. "If Softcard can find a way into the user experience at that level, they can be very competitive."
Having the telcos behind the venture helps Softcard, Peterson added. "But I don't know how you get any better than your phone automatically activating at the terminal and then you pay with your thumbprint [with Apple Pay]."
But it would be a bad idea for Softcard to get into an us-versus-them advertising war with Apple, said Richard Oglesby, senior analyst at Double Diamond Payments Research.
Softcard's biggest selling point is its support of Android, Oglesby said. Android owners "see Apple Pay on TV, but they know it only works on Apple devices, so [Softcard] can say they can do the same thing on their devices," he said.
And pretty soon Softcard could have the rare distinction of working on both iOS and Android devices.
"We are actively working with Apple to enable Softcard on the iPhone in 2015 using an integrated secure SIM-based hardware solution," Michael Abbott, Softcard's CEO, said in a Sept. 9 blog post.