Two Years Later, the Wait Seems Longer for Mobile Wallets

In 2012, hype and money surrounded the digital wallet concept. But now, the promise of mobile payments feels just as far off, if not further.

by Omar L. Gallaga, McClatchy News Service / August 20, 2014

“The future of buying stuff seems like it’s going to be cashless, credit card-less and tied to whatever mobile device you happen to be carrying around. But how far into the future are we talking? Or are we already there?”

Funny thing about that quote: I wrote it for a Digital Savant column. In April 2012.

The occasion for the column, about the buzz around mobile payments and so-called “digital wallets,” was that year’s South by Southwest Interactive. There, finance companies pushed new payment services with names like Isis, a wireless technology called NFC (near-field communication) was building buzz and American Express blew everyone away with a surprise concert by Jay-Z at ACL Live.

So much hype. So much money spent. And yet, the promise of mobile payments feels just as far in the future as it did more than two years ago, if not further.

American Express spent a lot of money on that show to push “Sync,” a way to use an AmEx card to buy stuff via Twitter. I spend a lot of time on Twitter and I’ve never seen anyone use it.

NFC tech is still around, most notably in apps that allow you to activate wireless speakers or bump phones together to transfer photos or other information. But Apple never incorporated it into its iPhones, so it has never gone mainstream.

And what about Isis Wallet, a mobile payment standard created by AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon in cooperation with Visa, MasterCard, Discover and American Express? Embarrassingly, it’s going through a rebranding since ISIS is also the name of a terrorist group in Iraq. Whoops.

It would be unfair to say that mobile payments are dead. There are plenty of people using services such as PayPal, Square and last year’s tech darling, the Bitcoin standard, to transfer money to and fro online. Lots of restaurants, bars and other businesses will let you pay with some of these as well as apps such as Austin’s successful TabbedOut.

But has anybody demonstrated convincingly that any option to pay for stuff with your mobile phone is faster, easier and more secure than just paying with a credit card? If anyone had, many of us early adopters would be rushing to use it and tell you all about how it changed our life. But that hasn’t happened yet.

I tell you all this to get to my most recent mobile payments experience. A company from Israel called MyCheck launched in Austin this month, promising an easier way to pay for the check at restaurants on iOS or Android mobile devices. Its splashy website promises you can “checkout like a rockstar” and more easily split a check with dining companions even if they don’t install the app.

I spoke to Frances Zelazny, an executive vice president for the Americas at MyCheck. She told me she understands the frustrations people have with mobile wallets. “Payment is not enough,” she said. “You need to provide an enhanced experience for merchants and for users. Control and convenience is the biggest thing for the user.”

But like a lot of mobile payment options, the reality falls short of the promise. MyCheck, which works closely with PayPal, says that it’s much more a platform than just a single app. But the newly launched app is what people like you and me can use, so I tried it out.

Surprisingly, only two restaurant options are currently available in Austin, Gourdough’s Public House and Bombay Bistro. A third, the restaurant Sazon, is “coming soon.” The other two “nearby” options? A restaurant in Houston and a café in Fort Worth, in case you feel like driving a while.

The way the app works is that you put your payment information in beforehand, check in at the restaurant via the app and then give your server a four-digit code generated by the app in communication with the restaurant’s point-of-sale system. You don’t have to hand over your phone, but you do have to have a conversation with your waiter or waitress about how you’re paying.

I tried it at Gourdough’s to pay for a completely decadent chicken-and-doughnut dish called the Country Clucker (highly recommended). My waitress knew about MyCheck but asked multiple times for my four-digit code, joking that she couldn’t remember the numbers in the right order.

I was able to pay and tip, but I still ended up with a paper receipt and a payment process that was no faster or more convenient than just using a credit card. It wasn’t that the app didn’t work. It worked fine. But it wasn’t any more convenient, and the promises of rewards or discounts never materialized. It certainly didn’t make me feel like a rockstar.

Why launch an app in Austin that has only two restaurants available locally (more will be added, MyCheck promises; there are about 100 in New York City) and that doesn’t deliver much of that “enhanced” experience that Zelazny mentioned? Why not wait and get it right first?

That’s the story of mobile payments right now, really. A lot of hype and noise and very little that’s worth embracing.

If you want me to ditch my real wallet, a mobile payment option has to do these things:

  • Make sign-up as easy as possible. I don’t want to keep track of another account for another service I might or might not use in the future. Let me log in with an existing Amazon, PayPal or Square account.
  • For that matter, it’s not getting my credit card information. If a payments app isn’t trusted by my bank or credit card issuer to connect to my account and draw payments with my permission, I won’t trust it, either.
  • Be ubiquitous. I don’t want to have to think about which restaurants, grocery stores or food trailers accept this payment option or that and adjust my shopping accordingly. If it doesn’t work everywhere a credit card does, I’m going to stick with the old-school option.
  • And it needs to work on whatever phone I have, not just the ones with NFC hardware in them. Or at least until Apple decides to include NFC in its products.

It’s a tall order, perhaps unrealistic right now. But it’s exactly what has to happen before mobile wallets will go mainstream.

©2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas