Whether or not the use of mobile devices to make payments succeeds is a big deal because the potential market is staggering. Even moderate success will mean billions of dollars to various players in the chain that includes retailers, device makers, application developers and network operators.
The shoe that has steadfastly refused to drop at this point is whether Apple will include near-field communications (NFC) in the next iPhone. It's probably not fair to say that the future of e-wallets is dependent on Apple. It is clear, though, that the sector will evolve differently based on what the company does.
But there are many other substantial participants. The major existing player is ISIS, which is a joint venture from AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon. This week, ISIS announced that it will roll out pilots in Salt Lake City and Austin during the first three to six months of 2012. That may just be the beginning, according to a quote at The Los Angeles Times attributed to Jaymee Johnson, who is generally identified as an ISIS spokesperson:
"We want to start in Austin and Salt Lake, in two markets, then a few months later maybe go to four markets, then later maybe eight, then 10, then 20," Johnson said. "But that won't all happen in 2012, that'll be spread out over 2013 and beyond."
The story concludes with a brief overview of others in the landscape, including Visa, MasterCard, Sprint and Google.
Indeed, the topic seems to be of great interest to Google, or at least to Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. The Financial Times reports that in comments at the Cannes Lions advertising festival he asserted that one third of restaurants and retail outlets will use such a system within the next year. The story points out that the company introduced the Google Wallet for Android in May .
Though the piece hedges somewhat on that firm prediction, Schmidt suggests that the technology is ready and that the credit card companies will embrace, not fight against, the transition:
"That money is going to be spent not by Google and not by the phone guys but by the credit card companies, because the fraud rates are so much lower," he said. "Nobody knows how quickly this will occur but it's in their interests to convert as fast as they humanly can."
Nothing will stop the NFC-driven mobile payment industry from taking off. While it will do so a lot more quickly with Apple's participation, it is not a prerequisite for the category's success. Apple, however, may be missing a golden opportunity if the next iPhone doesn't embrace it.