BlackBerry Sneaks Up On Mobile Payments. Should Retailers Care?

Written by Frank Hayes
October 12th, 2011

Pity the poor BlackBerry. There are more BlackBerry models equipped with NFC chips than there are NFC iPhones and Android phones combined. BlackBerry phones are actually being used for mobile payments in some Middle Eastern countries. And on Monday (Oct. 10), BlackBerry maker Research in Motion announced a new set of NFC-based features that sound like a perfect platform for doing payments, too, although RIM made no reference to payment. But still, nobody takes the BlackBerry seriously as a mobile-payments contender in the U.S. anyway.

There are lots of reasons for that: IT shops have bad memories of having to run proprietary RIM servers to support BlackBerry users. RIM’s periodic network outages (such as the one slowing E-mail delivery and choking BlackBerry Internet access this week) give retail IT plenty of reason to hope payments will never depend on RIM. And although iPhones are sexy and Android phones are at least gadgety, BlackBerrys—until recently—looked downright clunky. But with a growing consumer fan base spearheaded by BlackBerry Messenger users, along with actual experience doing mobile payments, retailers may have to bite the bullet and accept that RIM is going to be a payments player in the U.S., too. The question is, how soon—and then how?

RIM appears to be in no rush to make that happen. The BlackBerry Tag features that the handset maker announced on Monday let users tap their NFC-enabled BlackBerry Bold and Curve phones to share contacts, documents, social-media information—everything except money. It almost sounds as if RIM has thrown in the towel on payments, if not for the fact that on the same day RIM announced it is doing NFC-based mobile payments in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates.

And although no one is about to suggest that a BlackBerry will ever be as sexy as an iPhone, the devices have attained a certain level of gadget-chic (along with lots of young, non-business users) thanks to the BlackBerry Messenger service that only works between BlackBerrys.

That points to an annoying shift in who is likely to walk into a store carrying a BlackBerry—from E-mail-oriented business users, who were never going to use the RIM devices for mobile payments anyway, to social-media-obsessed young customers, who aren’t going to trade them in for iPhones or Androids. Until very recently, the BlackBerry was extremely easy to dismiss as a mobile-commerce platform—as Pizza Hut CIO Baron Concors said about developing an M-Commerce app that was released six months ago, BlackBerry wasn’t seen as an option. “It was discussed early on, and it was quickly eliminated. They haven’t strategically put themselves in a position to compete.”

But in practice, RIM now increasingly has the right kind of customers, the right type of phones and the right type of experience to be attractive for mobile payments.

Problem is, RIM doesn’t quite have all the experience it needs.


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