Operator partnerships and small-scale mobile payment trials will start to bear fruit in 2012 and some analysts think Apple will make a play for our wallets. But mass-market acceptance will still allude the sector, according to analysts.
In some ways, 2011 was a disappointing year for mobile payments and NFC (Near Field Communications).
"There has been progress, but not as much as people had hoped for. We now also have a number of handsets with NFC, albeit a small number, and not as many as people were saying there would be at the start of the year," said John Devlin, group director at market research company ABI Research.
Even if the industry isn't as far along as expected, it is moving forward. For example, 2011 saw the U.S. launch of Google Wallet, which by the end of 2012 will prove to be a hit among consumers, according to ABI.
The slow progress mainly stems from operators that have had to rethink their business model for mobile payments in the last six months.
"I remember speaking to a number of operators in the May-June time frame and they were still very much convinced that companies would pay them to carry their cards. Their mindset was that if Visa doesn't pay them MasterCard will. That was quite a blinkered strategy," said Devlin.
But Google changed the game with the introduction of Wallet and spurred operators in a number of countries, including the U.K., to join forces and form a single platform, according to Devlin.
Operators launching commercial services set the stage for a battle between Google and operator joint ventures next year. Verizon Wireless, a member of the Isis payment venture, asking Google not to put its Wallet app on the operator's version of the Galaxy Nexus highlights the brewing battle.
"It is about being first to market right now and the likes of Verizon will be very wary that if consumers start using Google Wallet it is going to be very difficult to change them from that in the future," said Devlin.
While there is the realization that in order to be successful in the long term with NFC, payments and mobile wallets need to be ubiquitous, transferable and interchangeable, no one is ready to give any ground, according to ABI, But eventually they will find a "happy medium," which will serve Google and the operators, as well as consumers, Devlin said.
Google hasn't made any announcements about launching Wallet in other countries, but is expected to go live the U.K. during 2012, according to market research company CCS Insight's yearly predictions. Also, Google's service will make more progress as the operators struggle with the demands of a consensus approach and regulatory scrutiny, it said.
But the competition with Google isn't all bad. That different large companies enter the space helps show that it is a legitimate market, according to Jaymee Johnson, head of marketing at Isis.
By the middle of 2012, Isis will launch services in Salt Lake City and Austin, Texas, and then build from there.
In those two cities, consumers will be able to walk into a carrier retail store and choose between multiple smartphones, load their choice of mobile payment card onto the phone, and then use the mobile payment system at both national chains and local stores, according to Johnson. Eventually, Isis will have nationwide coverage, but real scale won't come until 2013 and 2014, he said.
The number of phones that ship with NFC will grow from an estimated 34 million this year to 80 million next year, which doesn't equate to mass-market acceptance. But by 2016, that number will have grown to 552 million, according to ABI.
NFC successes will at first be found outside payment systems and payment efforts will not achieve much success before 2015, according to CCS Insight.
Even if NFC continues to get a lot of attention, it isn't the only technology that will be used to enable mobile payments. For example, PayPal earlier this year announced plans to start using barcodes in 2012.
As always, one of the big questions for 2012 is what Apple will do, and if the company still has the power to change the telecom sector in the post-Jobs era. Some analysts are convinced that Apple will launch a service and grab market share from the operators.
"Apple will launch a mobile wallet product in 2012. Apple's operator partners will allow Apple to offer their mobile wallet to consumers who have iPhones, regardless of whether or not the operator has a competing mobile wallet," said Mark Beccue, senior analyst at ABI.
CCS Insight also expects that Apple will integrate NFC into the iPhone 5, and link it to its iTunes payment infrastructure.
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