The era of mobile payments is officially here, and while Google (Nasdaq:GOOG) is credited with being a pioneer, investors may not want to place another feather in the company's cap just yet.
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The company launched its Google Wallet service back on September 19 when it first allowed users of the Nexus S 4G phone to make an in-store retail purchase by scanning the smartphone (pre-loaded with credit card information) rather than the requiring the actual credit card to be scanned.
Interesting? Sure. But despite Google's early lead, this is one race the tech giant isn't poised to win. (For more on digital payments, check out New Technology: Pay Without Your Wallet.)
Not That Simple (for Google)
Google was the first to make it functional, and its mobile-payment framework may well be the model for its competitors in the future. Google didn't - and couldn't - do it alone though, which is the weak spot in the armor.
For starters, the retailer has to be equipped to process payments using a smartphone as a device. Though some major names like OfficeMax (NYSE:OMX) and Radioshack (NYSE:RSH) are ready to roll, only fourteen retailers are signed up to offer the service so far, with only eight more on deck.
In addition, the phone's mobile network provider has to be on board, technologically speaking. The only service provider offering Google Wallet is Sprint-Nextel (NYSE:S), leaving other carriers like AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) behind. And, for now, the payments only process MasterCard (NYSE:MA) credit card accounts.
The funny thing is, those other wireless carriers don't really seem to care.
As it turns out, both AT&T and Verizon, through the ISIS mobile payment group, are spending $100 million on their own near-field communication technology, which is what makes a phone capable of making a digital payment at a point of sale. Moreover, industry analysts largely view the likely ISIS solution as superior to Google Wallet in most every way. The consortium is said to be bringing more banks like Visa (NYSE:V) and Discover Financial Services (NYSE:DFS) and more merchants into the loop. And, this version of a mobile wallet is expected to be accessible on more phones than just one, unlike Google's initial offer.
To be fair, Google could widen its net in the future. If a competitor beats them to the punch with consumers though (as it seems may be the case), it will be doubly difficult to win those customers over.
The Bottom Line
There's still no word on when the ISIS rollout is going to happen, but given that Google's already up and rolling, it's likely to be sooner than later. The rumored launch is "early 2012."
Once ISIS, Verizon Wireless and AT&T along with all the major credit card companies and a so-far-unknown number of retailers collectively unveil their version of a digital wallet though, it may well define the industry - and generate revenue - in a way Google hasn't been able to yet simply because it's bigger, more flexible and available on more phones. Google has about four to five months to address that looming reality.
It's a big deal for one simple reason - mobile payments are expected to reach $670 billion per year by 2015. Assuming Google Wallet's standard 2% transaction fee (paid by the seller) applies to the ISIS consortium as well, that's $13 billion up for grabs on an annual basis - a figure that will surely grow every year. (For more on other alternative payment forms, check out 5 Money Transfer Technologies And Their Risks.)
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