Three massive companies, Alipay, Apple and PayPal, are on a collision course as they move to shake up the global e-payments market.
China's Alipay has made a series of tech upgrades, partnerships and product launches that nudge it closer to the U.S. and European payments markets. Given Alipay's formidable scaleit processed nearly $1 trillion in online payments in 2013it can certainly fight in PayPal and Apple's weight class.
"Payments is a two-sided market, you need a buyer and a seller," said Gareth Lodge, a senior analyst at Celent. "That's why it's so hard to launch a new payment type, because it's hard to attract one side without the other."
Apple and PayPal are already butting heads following the reveal of the Apple Pay wallet. And this week, Alipay launched ePass, a service that integrates Alipay with U.S. retailers. Alipay also rebranded its business as Ant Financial Services group as part of its deeper push into financial services. Alipay and Alipay Wallet will remain major business lines of Ant Financial Services.
Alibabathe company that created Alipay in 2004 and still maintains an affiliate relationship with itwent public about a month ago, and Alipay has been rapidly bulking up its mobile payment technology. It added fingerprint scanning from Nok Nok Labs, which makes the Alipay Wallet compliant with FIDO standards. Alipay also partnered with Stripe, an American company that powers e-commerce payments; and has made other moves to fuel its global aspirations.
Apple and PayPal are just as active. Today, Apple launched its newest iPhones in China, where it has reportedly been laying the groundwork for mobile wallet acceptance. And yesterday eBay affirmed its timeline for spinning off PayPal, which should give the payments unit more opportunities to expand.
Any designs Alipay has on the U.S or European market will be met with stiff competition from PayPal, Apple and others with established market share and brand recognition, experts say. Alipay did not make an executive available for an interview by deadline.
"PayPal is by far the most popular digital wallet around the world and is in many countries. One country where it is not popular is China. And Alipay is incredibly popular in China, but has very few users outside of China," said Gil Luria, an analyst at Wedbush Securities.
Like Alipay, PayPal and Apple are both making moves to expand worldwide. Apple's partners are already preparing to accept its mobile wallet outside the U.S., while PayPal's planned split from eBay is expected to give it more flexibility to expand and enter new partnerships. PayPal will also maintain a relationship with eBay after the split.
"Given the size of Alipay and PayPal and their very close relationships with their respective merchandise platforms, Alibaba and eBay, there is so much opportunity for them to run into each other," Michael Misasi, a senior analyst at Mercator Advisory Group. There have been suggestions that Alibaba should buy eBay to gain entry into the U.S. market for Alipay, but "I don't think that's going to happen," Misasi said.
The problem for all three companies in head-to-head competition is entrenchment. PayPal and Apple are both established brands in the west, making it hard for Alipay; and the Chinese government has been cool to PayPal, suggesting it would be hard for either PayPal or Apple to penetrate the Chinese market with a direct-to-consumer product, Luria said.
"And not only is PayPal popular in the U.S., there are many other companies that are powerful in the digital wallet space, like Amazon, Google and Visa," Luria said. Other companies, such as Monitise and Gemalto, are pursuing business in China, but are operating as providers for local initiatives and are not processing payments.
"Apple Pay wouldn't become a version of PayPal in China just like PayPal can't work in China," Luria said. "The iPhone 6 with an NFC chip could facilitate Alipay transactions, but it doesn't seem like the Chinese government wants Apple to become a payments company in China. If it did, PayPal would be in China."
That leaves cross-border payments, and even there, Alipay's move targets a friendly scenarioChinese consumers are the end users. "That cross-border market is undeveloped, and that's a greenfield for Alipay," Luria said.
Alipay may have an opportunity to compete for U.S. merchants in the cross-border B2B market, Misasi said. "The opportunity is not as much U.S. consumers, but businesses in the U.S. ordering supplies or raw materials from Chinese suppliers," he said.
It's still too early to gauge how Apple Pay will threaten PayPal or Alipay's designs on any market, Misasi said. But Apple has its own obvious scale advantage, and on Oct. 16 announced that about 500 banks are supporting Apple Pay.
"With Apple, these other companies are going to have to be top-of-mind with consumers," Misasi said.