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Commentary: mobile payment bench testing

People often assume that financial transactions on mobile platforms will 'just work'. They'd better; enough companies are depending on them for their continued financial health. So it was interesting to test a few of the leading platforms and networks to see just how they coped.

It's worth setting out a few parameters before getting too far into this. First, since the interest was in whether the transaction technology worked or not, a few environmental variables won't be included in this article: my personal preference for a particular platform may become apparent but it shouldn't colour any conclusion of which worked the best. Second any immediate issues like the phone whose Internet connection died five times while it was trying out a transaction won't be mentioned as this is likely to be due to hardware failure. Clearly all transactions are best served by a decent connection and up to date hardware.

It’s also worth stressing that the test took place in the UK. This means all assumptions like: the customer has a credit or debit card, probably a spare as well, hold up OK. If Id been in India or another emerging market, where smartphones are plentiful but credit cards arent, I may have struggled with some of the payment methods on offer. Putting a payment through on the iTunes store would be something of a trial, for example.

So to the tests. First up was the Samsung Galaxy S3 running its Android system on the Vodafone network. Using the browser rather than a dedicated Facebook app, with a Facebook account already set up, the idea was to go into the Skyscraper City game and buy 15 Facebook credits. There was some confusion due to Skyscraper City’s “Skybucks” values not matching Facebook credits’ values, so I bought 20 Skybucks.

I wanted to bypass the Facebook app. The phone disagreed and prompted me to download it. Twice. However, once at the payment area the transaction itself was easy; I was offered options of PayPal, new credit card or adding the transaction to the mobile phone bill. I opted for PayPal, entered my already-established account and the credits arrived seamlessly.

Later on I tried catching it out. I did the same thing as the first test but disconnected from the carrier’s data network, logged on to the premise's WiFi and opted for adding the cost to the phone bill. So now I was asking the network to let me charge items to the carrier account when I wasn’t using the carrier – would it identify me? How would it verify me? The process was actually a pushover – the payment system sent a text to the phone to ensure I was indeed me. That established, the funds moved immediately. This was a slightly more complex transaction but in the interests of security it was a good refinement. I’d expected it to fall over.

On the same phone I downloaded the FIFA 12 game by EA Sports, this time going through the Samsung Game Hub. This was easy to find on the apps list. Finding the game through a search was very easy, and on clicking to "install' it offered the option to pay through the phone bill or through a credit card. I checked both methods with different games. Carrier billing when connected to the carrier’s own network was fine. Going through the credit card option and entering new details was a seamless if finger-fiddly process. Entering long numbers on a small touch screen always contains elements of pot luck. I note that the account was already set up on the phone but once again this appeared to be a very simple case of form filling with minimal details.

I then moved to another Google-powered phone the HTC One S running on O2, to buy the book “Snatched” by Karin Slaughter with a credit card. The account was already created on the store. Once again finding the book was simple by searching on the Google Play store but then the slight complications started. Carrier billing was not available. Clicking ‘download’ prompted a request for my credit card details so I entered them; it then wanted my phone number. Why did I have to give out my phone number to buy a book fo £1.49? On completing the details I was then faced with a screen telling me I had created a Google Wallet account. I didn’t remember asking for that. It also had my phone number. I wanted a book, not a relationship. The book downloaded very quickly once I had persuaded it my postcode was genuine; Google clearly hates lower case letters for postcodes and will slow a purchase down until it gets its way. The download and the actual transaction were easy enough once I’d machete’d my way through the detail.

The HTC model was also used to download the Piano Master game from the Amazon App store. The account was already set up and pre-set to take payments from an already-entered credit card. It wasn’t clear that I had to select ‘edit’ to change the payment method (I’d have expected the word ‘change’ instead — to me, ‘edit’ means ‘change the text’). This aside, the pre-installed account worked perfectly and easily, clicking on confirmations and downloading the app in seconds.

The experience using someone else’s iPhone 4 on O2 to download a song from the iTunes Store failed. When I searched for the song and found it very easily, then clicked “download”, the iTunes Store said I was using this phone for the first time with my account and it needed to recheck credit card details and I didn’t have the card handy. A quick check on my own iPhone 5 on O2 confirmed that searching, clicking and downloading was a very easy process with a card already set up on my account.

The BlackBerry App World experience was pretty positive. Once connected the transaction went through without a hitch by selecting adding the cost to the phone bill – the download of the game was authorised immediately and it came through on the phone straight away. 

Finally my first experience of using a Samsung Windows Phone on the Three network was a joy. Finding the individual areas such as music is easy thanks to the large icons. Through the marketplace I found the music required, told the phone which country I was in — it didn’t require a phone number or other extraneous detail — I was entering the credit card details and downloading the song required in next to no time. I note it defaulted to ‘new credit card’ rather than offering me any other payment options but the whole process was so smooth I almost didn’t notice. Clearly someone’s designed this process so people can buy stuff rather than take a degree in e-commerce.

When the hardware is working – and given the nature of mobile networks that’s a substantial caveat – there aren’t any bad payment systems out there. Adding a transaction to a carrier’s phone bill is the easiest way to do it; by definition you’re always going to have the phone with you during a transaction whereas you can leave a credit or debit card behind. If this is a nice-to-have in the developed world then it’s essential in the developing territories, where they often have a phone and no payment card. If system developers want to continue to allow people to use cards they’re going to have to make it easier and indeed more desirable to enter the details onto a small touch screen – otherwise this method’s likely to die off relatively quickly.

Guy Clapperton is a journalist and technology commentator based in the U.K. Article commissioned by Bango, a U.K.-based payments and analytics provider, but posted with no promotional consideration. 

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