Among the bankers and industry executives with whom we've spoken lately, the prevailing attitude toward the frenzy of mobile payment announcements from the likes of PayPal, Isis, Visa, MasterCard, Google, Dwolla, and others runs the gamut from apathy to complacency. One banker at a recent conference was convinced that such initiatives will have little impact on banks. "We're still not completely disintermediated in most of these things," he said. "They still have to rely on us, we hold the money and they still to use our payment rails." The one exception, in his mind, was the announcement in mid-March by Wal-Mart, Target and other retailers that they are working on their own mobile payment initiative. "All the others are good and interesting and they're chipping away at pieces of the value chain. But this is Wal-Mart, so we're going to have to pay attention."
A consultant who spoke at SourceMedia's Best Practices in Retail Financial Services conference in March in Boca Raton assured the crowd that those who were being cautious and doing nothing about mobile payments were making the right choice.
This resonates with most bankers, who tend to want to be "fast followers."
Consumers, too, have shown faint interest in mobile payments so far. In a survey we reference on page 13, the percentage of Americans who have tried a mobile payment is a single digit. It's no wonder - there's little in the way of working mobile payment technology out there for them to try, so far.
But things can change fast. Remote deposit capture didn't exist before 2009. Now it's commonplace.
The real issue is not so much who will process mobile payments, but who will own the customer relationship.
As Javelin analyst Mary Monahan noted in a recent report, Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon are winning the war for consumer mindshare.
"Several trends - the rising adoption of smartphones at 45%, the increasing use of social media at 69%, and the introduction of tablets at 8% - are catalyzing growing demand for new products and services that tie mobile and social networks to the web and the physical world," she said. "The Gang of Four - Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon - is particularly well positioned to dominate in the mobile-social tech cycle. Within this cycle, traditional online companies have a huge head start if they can transition their current online services and products to the mobile environment because of the network effects that are created."
In some ways, it's appropriate to let the tech-oriented companies lead in mobile payment innovation, let them do the research, development and testing. They're good at it.
But sitting on the sidelines watching while others figure out this new payments landscape seems like a bad idea. Banks have an opportunity to do something unique and creative product-wise with mobile banking and payments. To stand by without even joining the debate would be to squander it.