The Mobile Cash Crunch

Hand on mobile phoneWe love cash—literally. We love it so much that we’re willing to eschew the alternatives afforded by modern society. All these millennia into human evolution, and those crinkly, dirty pieces of paper that have passed through countless hands still have a place in our hearts and wallets, and bring a gleam to a mugger’s eye. By contrast, the credit card is so modern, an ultra-fast option that’s both convenient and safe, and helps build a financial history. But it’s not to new either. In fact, the idea goes back to at least 1887, when it gets 11 mentions in the Edward Bellamy novel “Looking Backward.” And today, 127 years later, it’s the only real alternative to the coin of the realm.

Let’s put it another way: Why haven’t mobile payments taken off?

It should be a no-brainer, since we use mobile apps for just about everything else. Apple passed the 1 million figure for the iPhone App store back in October 2013, and devices and apps exist to help us in every facet of our busy lives: shop, communicate, get healthy, get richer, get away on vacation, do our jobs, slack off, play games, and just plain kill time. Mobile banking in multiple forms has revolutionized our industry.

Yet the most fundamental form of human transaction—paying for goods and services in person—still relies on cash and credit cards. We can punch a button on the phone and get it done, more conveniently and a lot more safely. But we don’t.

It’s not as if there hasn’t been any progress. Consumers spent $235.4 billion through mobile payments in 2013. That, according to research from Gartner, represents a hefty jump over the $163.1 billion spent this way the year before. The numbers for 2014 will surely be higher still. However, the numbers are considerably lower for the United States: about $37 billion in 2013, up from $24 billion. And if even that seems big, consider this: The U.S. GDP for 2013 approached $17 trillion.

In other words, the potential for mobile payments is gigantic, and the reality is minuscule. Could it be that the technologies to support such a transformation aren’t here yet? No quite the contrary. In fact, we have a wealth of options available—and that might be the problem.

Remember, we first got to see Google Wallet exactly three years ago this month, and the expectation was that it would revolutionize basic transactions. It didn’t. More recently, we’ve had a steady stream of alternatives, from Square and Clinkle to Belly. Tech vendors and financial services have teamed up to offer joint options, such as Visa’s payWave on coming pre-loaded on Samsung Galaxy phones. Apple will presumably come up with a mobile wallet of its own at some point. Yet so far, the many ripples have not turned into a splash.

The chicken-or-the-egg question is particularly valid here. As recent reports have noted, merchants are wary of making the necessary deals and installing the technology in their stores until there’s enough of a critical mass in the public. But by the same token, most consumers can’t be bothered to download the relevant apps—even when they’re free—and go to the trouble of finding which store accepts which option.

Many other fields face similar compatibility issues, from games to stock trading, yet there’s typically more growth—a slow evolution followed by a spike. In mobile payments, despite the tremendous potential, widespread adoption has been stymied by competitive offerings.

So what’s the answer here? Should we still be waiting for a killer app from a particular vendor? Should the current technology entrants try to get together and create a common platform that enables compatibility but potentially hurts innovation? Should financial services vendors form an agreement of their own and force tech companies to go along? Should the government get involved?

We likely won’t have an answer for a while. But it’s worth noting that the time for the mobile wallet has come, and perhaps will soon be gone.

 

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