There's really no disputing it: Mobile is a big part of the future of commerce. At the same time, mobile, so far, has been a bit disappointing in that area.
In the U.S., outside of ringtone and music downloads, people don't buy much with their phones – and they certainly don't use it as a payment device. For whatever reason, Europe and Asia have been much more welcoming of the technology when it comes to making purchases.
Still, many big name and deep-pocketed corporations are making bets in this area, like eBay with PayPal and Google with its payment system.
And now it looks like Apple is ready to step in. Earlier this week, an unconfirmed report popped up from TechCrunch that Apple and Google have been courting San Francisco start-up Boku, whose technology allows consumers to charge purchases to their mobile phone bills. The appeal is probably not so much the technology, but the existing relationships Boku has with several mobile carriers.
I, however, don't find this report/rumor quite as sexy as one that surfaced last week about a potential partnership between Apple and Gemalto NV, a Dutch company that makes mobile phone SIM cards and payment cards with embedded chips.
Boku, for its part, is currently relegated to the digital realm. But Gemalto offers Apple a chance to compete in a very different space. American Banker writes:
'But having Boku in its arsenal would not by itself give Apple the ability to do point of sale payments in a brick-and-mortar environment, which is "where the real battle will be fought," said Richard Crone, a payments consultant. A relationship with Gemalto could help bring that capability into the physical retail world.'
Up until now, merchants, as the American Banker points out, have been resistant to bringing a new piece of hardware into their stores, especially since adoption of mobile pay technologies has been so slow. But now imagine if that was a piece of aesthetically pleasing, easy-to-use Apple hardware. And given the proliferation of the iPhone, it might be a piece of hardware that actually gets a good deal of use.
Another angle intriguing me is where the big credit card payment networks -- Visa and MasterCard -- fit in. It seems to me this could reduce the number of transactions they process. If that's the case, this technology could ultimately put pressure on the fees they charge merchants, which would certainly be welcome.
Last updated: Nov 4, 2010
MATT QUINN contributes to the Wall Street Journal's corporate finance blog. He has also written extensively about banking and corporate finance for publications including Inc., American Banker, and Financial Week. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.