Is The Mobile Wallet Dead? It’s Up To Visa

Written by Frank Hayes
February 29th, 2012

Is Visa unbundling the mobile wallet? On Monday (Feb. 27), Visa announced an over-the-air service for putting payment-card information into smartphones, so the cards can be used for NFC-based mobile payments. The obvious advantage of Visa’s scheme: It’s from Visa, so presumably PCI problems will disappear.

But Visa is offering its new service for any issuing bank, mobile carrier and card brand. That means any payment card could go on a phone without the say-so of Google, ISIS or any other mobile-wallet vendor. At that point, will consumers see any reason for a mobile wallet other than the phone itself?

In the announcement at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Visa said the process for a typical phone owner would be straightforward: Buy an approved phone, contact the issuing bank, select a passcode, and then let the payment-card information download into the phone’s NFC Secure Element. The rest of the process—swapping the necessary numbers, security keys and details among banks, mobile operators and service providers—would all be done by Visa.

What’s not clear is what can be done with the card information once it’s in the phone (Visa hasn’t responded to our questions). But if there’s an equally straightforward way for a smartphone app to query the Secure Element so the card info can be passed to a POS device, then Google Wallet and ISIS could become much less compelling.

After all, the big appeal for mobile wallets is supposed to be that all sorts of virtual cards could be stored on the phone with a single PIN—credit and debit cards, giftcards, loyalty cards, coupons, transit passes and anything else that could be squeezed in. That’s a messy approach. But most wallets are pretty messy, so in itself that’s not a drawback.

The problem is that consumers can put anything in their actual wallets. Mobile wallets, on the other hand, require a complicated web of relationships, orchestrated by whoever is in charge of the wallet. The fact that Google and ISIS have made a steady string of announcements about retailers, banks, card brands and POS vendors testifies to how complicated this gets. (For example, the same day Visa announced its potential wallet-buster, ISIS said it has signed up Chase, CapitalOne and Barclaycard. That only leaves hundreds of issuing banks to go.)

Result: How much of a consumer’s actual wallet can go into the mobile wallet depends on politics, alliances and probably dollars changing hands—all of which is for the purpose of skimming a little bit off the top for the wallet operator.

But what if Visa actually follows through to the logical conclusion of its card-provisioning service? Suddenly the need for that web of agreements goes away.


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