Using your smartphone to make payments in shops or on public transport should become more widespread this year, but its supremacy is likely to depend on how successful retailers are in enticing people to keep their cards or cash in their pockets.
The stakes are high for phone manufacturers and operators, not to mention banks, as the success of contactless systems where consumers sweep their smartphone over a reader could restructure the lucrative retail payments market.
However, Philippe Lazare, chief executive officer of Ingenico, a leading manufacturer of payment card terminals as well as new contactless systems, does not see people as ready to give up their debit cards just yet.
“Smartphones will be a small part of the market, but the main payment mechanism will remain the traditional [card] terminal which will continue to see growth,” said Lazare, whose company manufactures more than one in three payment terminals in use worldwide.
That view did not stop Ingenico last week from announcing a contactless payments system compatible with Apple Pay at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona.
Apple Inc’s adoption last year of Near Field Communication (NFC) was a major step toward this becoming the dominant technology. Google Inc has had a similar service, Google Wallet, available for a couple years.
NFC allows smartphones or other devices to communicate with one another within a distance of several centimeters.
This means consumers can quickly sweep their phones over readers rather than having to pull out a card, insert it into a terminal and wait to punch in a code.
“It was a decisive step toward the creation of an ecosystem, but that may not be sufficient as several solutions are available,” said Anne Bouverot, head of the GSMA trade association for mobile operators that organizes the Barcelona event.
She said that it is also important to get people accustomed to using their phones for making payments by using them elsewhere, such as within public transportation systems that have adopted contactless technology like in London or Paris.
In launching Apple Pay, the US tech giant was again demonstrating its long-standing role as a trendsetter, rather than responding to consumer demand. It has yet to be rolled out anywhere except in the US.
However, Apple’s initiative has pushed its competitors to also move forward.
All high-end smartphones are now coming equipped with NFC. Some are coming with added security features, like the new Samsung Galaxy S6 unveiled at Barcelona that has a fingerprint scanner.
Google last month bought Softcard, a rival to its Google Wallet co-founded by US mobile operators AT&T Inc, T-Mobile USA Inc and Verizon Communications Inc in 2011.
Samsung Electronics Co recently acquired LoopPay Inc, whose technology links up with the magnetic strip readers in existing payment terminals instead of NFC.
This system transmits card details via secure magnetic signals to the reader when held up against it.
It has the advantage over the Apple and Google systems of being immediately compatible with more than 30 million payment terminals in use in the US.
US banks might be watching nervously as the emergence of contactless payment systems comes just as they are investing to upgrade payment cards and terminals from magnetic strips to chip cards.