With Visa, Google and others, mobile payments catching fire



With essentially no presence from mobile platform giants like Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android and Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS, the focus at this year's Mobile World Congress will likely fall on smaller players. Google alone has taken a huge step back from putting on the theatrical displays it orchestrated in previous years (slides, robots, etc.) More importantly, something, or rather someone, is missing. This year marks the first time in recent history that Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who delivered MWC keynotes in 2012 and 2011, won't be giving a keynote. In Schmidt's place there are two other Google executives, one in sales, and more importantly, Peter Hazlehurst, director of product management for Google Wallet. As Google's takes a step back from heavily promoting Android, it is taking the time to tout its NFC-enabled Google Wallet.

Google isn't the only player highlighting advancements in mobile payments. In fact, the GSMA instituted an event-wide program to incorporate NFC technology into 20,000 checkpoints in the MWC venue, in taxicabs and throughout Barcelona, Spain. At the show, 3,500 attendees will be given a Sony Xperia device with a special mobile payments app designed for the show.

"The GSMA is excited to launch the NFC Experience for Mobile World Congress 2013, as it provides attendees with the opportunity to experience first-hand the potential that NFC technology holds both throughout the Mobile World Congress venue and in Barcelona," said Michael O'Hara, chief marketing officer of the GSMA. 

The NFC-enabled app came together as a partnership among CaixaBank, Gemalto, Telefónica Digital and Visa Europe.

Digantam Gurung, senior analyst with CCS Insight, has been watching the excitement around mobile payments for the past 12 months. Gurung said credit card companies will have a big presence this year at MWC.

Indeed, Visa is holding a press conference Monday at the show. Visa also will be running a few events related to mobile payments next week, including Building the Ecosystem for NFC Services and Enhancing the Shopping Experience through Mobile, which will discuss the new uses for mobile technology in the retail environment.

Meantime, competitor MasterCard is leading one-day symposium on mobile payments. "Companies are deploying services, recruiting customers and merchants, and driving transactions. And these are the programs and success stories we wanted to spotlight with the people attending Mobile World Congress--by inviting those people who are really doing it to talk about their different projects. It's going to be very interesting to understand how each region is approaching things slightly differently," said Mung Ki Woo, executive of mobile at MasterCard.

However, Gurung isn't expecting any major mobile payments announcements from operator-led initiatives or credit card companies. He pointed to Isis, which went live in its two pilot cities in the United States last fall and is still concentrating on those initiatives, as well as Weve in the United Kingdom--a triumvirate of operators EE, Telefonica UK (O2) and Vodafone UK--which still hopes to launch this year.

Interestingly, Gurung thinks that the big step attendees will see next week will be in NFC outside of the payments space. "I certainly expect a lot happening around NFC the technology itself. NFC is not all about payments. It's about exchanging information at short range," said Gurung, noting that NFC could be used for Facebook and foursquare connections.

The bottomline is that the mobile payments space is still unsettled, and no one vendor has emerged at the top of the heap.

"Mobile wallets stand at the intersection of payments, retail, and advertising, and the opportunities this presents is creating a lot of excitement. There is clearly a lot up for grabs and the last year has seen online players, network operators, financial institutions, and retailers battle for position." said Eden Zoller, a principal analyst with Ovum.