Mobile money: the possibilities (and challenges)

In the last year we’ve done several research projects on mobile money at FACE, as excitement around the possibilities of “mobile wallet” develops. SXSWi was a chance to hear from leading players in the industry – American Express, PayPal, Intuit and more – on where this technology is going.

What is mobile money?

It’s important to think about the category as “mobile money” rather than simply “mobile payment” or “mobile wallet”. What’s at stake is much bigger than just transfering your credit card to your phone, or simply replicating the functions of a wallet (payment, loyalty cards & receipts) on a mobile device. The technologies available – smartphones, geolocation, the development of 4G and widespread wifi, and of course NFC – mean that what’s possible is in fact much greater: re-imagining the whole human-money interface.

What’s this mean? It’s about looking at every way in which we interact with money, and thinking about the transformations in user experience that are possible if we make it mobile. The transactions up for grabs are many and varied:

  • payment in a shop (of course)
  • paying a friend back for the taxi ride last night
  • checking to see if your credit card payment has gone out
  • transferring money immediately before making a big purchase to ensure your account doesn’t go overdrawn
  • adding up your receipts to see how much you’ve spent on eating out this month
  • calculating whether you’ll be able to get a mortgage
  • buying a flight (or just a coffee) with reward points – mobile money encompasses stored value, not just legal currencies
  • getting a discount email like Groupon and redeeming that online
  • searching for the cheapest iPad retailer online
  • or searching for a local restaurant offering a discount 2-for-1 deal
  • …and much, much more.

Making it mobile doesn’t simply mean “available on my mobile phone screen”. The mobile phone is a smart, location-aware computing device, carried almost always within a metre of our bodies, which is always connected to the internet and keeps us always connected to the people we know. Taking full advantage of these properties is what makes mobile money fundamentally transformative. The word “revolutionary” is overused in business, but making money truly mobile is a much bigger deal than the rise of credit cards in the 1960s, the last biggest step-change in payment methods.


There are however some substantial challenges in rolling out mobile money to its full potential. Here are five:

1. Money is a difficult sector to innovate in

Regulation is a big hindrance on start-ups in the money space: there is both legal incumbrance and a cultural resistance (aka trust) to companies taking risks, trying something new – and perhaps not succeeding. The big incumbents are also an obstacle – banks own the central customer account (current/checking accounts), and Visa, ┬áMastercard & Amex control payments.

Building new back-end processing systems is very difficult, and even the big over-the-top players (PayPal, Google Wallet) are essentially innovating on top of existing card payments i infrastructure. Dwolla – a New York peer-to-peer (P2P) money startup – is worth a note here, for one that isn’t.

2. What’s happening with NFC?

NFC stands for near-field communications. It’s a type of radio communications – like wifi or Bluetooth at a different frequency – that allows for short-range (10cm) communciation between devices and tagged objects, other devices, and merchant terminals. It is ultimately the key way contactless payment will be delivered – although it’s worth remembering that mobile money means a lot more than just in-store payment.

Unfortunately NFC uptake is moving extremely slowly. So far there are only a handful of NFC-enabled handsets in the UK, and many of them are unappealing low-spec phones. The big player is of course the Apple iPhone, and so far there’s no news as to when or how NFC will be implemented on this device.

Without a standardised technology, merchants are naturally unwilling to invest in NFC payment terminals so these remain in a few chain stores only – MacDonalds since 2003; Pret A Manger, and so on. We’re 5+ years away yet from “leave your cash & card at home”.

3. UX benefits of mobile payment in-store

One eye-opener for me about our US trip was just how annoying magnetic-stripe payment really is. US banks haven’t been able to agree on a Chip & PIN standard (as in Europe). As such payment requires the┬ámerchant taking the card away (a security risk) and two stages of receipts. NFC payment would clearly be much quicker than this, providing a clear driver for consumer uptake. However, it’s got minimal speed and thus user experience benefit in Europe over the faster Chip & PIN.

4. Trust

Many commentators rate the chances of the over-the-top tech players (mainly Google, Apple, Paypal) as ahead of the banks. Despite some bank mobile apps getting rave user reviews (RBS and Natwest’s mobile banking apps) and a strong move from Barclays Pingit on peer-to-peer transfers, there’s a suspicion that banks are likely to stick to “mobilifying” what they already do, rather than really innovating and reinventing the category. That transformative capacity – and also slick UX design – would seem to be more the property of the tech companies.

But PayPal has a trust problem: we see consistent and frequent stories of how it freezes people’s accounts for months without explanation or recourse. That’s infuriating when it’s your tool for P2P and small-merchant payments – it’s completely untenable if they’re operating your current account. There’s also increasing consumer suspicion of just how much Google knows about us – so giving them access to our finances may be a step too far.

5. Who’s actually thinking big enough?

This was the core insight from a fantastic solo SXSW presentation by Omar Green, Director of Strategic Mobile Initiatives at Intuit, the payment technology firm. He talked about “creating a mobile wallet worth having”, and said he thought the company who would “win” mobile money would be the one offering every transaction listed above and more.

As suggested above, the risk is that too many of the mobile money launches we can see on the horizon are thinking too small. Credit cards on your phone and no additional functionality – so what’s in it for me the user? A couple of dozen big-brand partners rather than available everywhere – so why use? There will certainly be some early adopters who’ll take-up simply to be first and look ahead, but they’re a minority. Strategically banks, MNOs and tech firms need to recognise that these standalone offers must only be stepping stones to something much bigger if they’re going to get any real traction. (Barclaycard have had an NFC credit card since 2003. No-one cares.)

Omar Green had a vision of what mobile money could be that I’ve not seen from anywhere else in the industry. The goal is a seamless money experience addressing our fundamental financial and emotional needs – balancing the books, saving for the future, feeling in control and feeling like we’ve spent our money wisely.

Question is, how seriously will the various mobile payment and wallet apps launching this year will really address these?


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