When the CTIA Wireless 2012 conference ended on May 10, it closed a very busy spring that was chock full of meetings, conferences and tradeshows all covering some aspect of mobile payments. Between the National Retail Federation show in New York in January and CTIA last week, there were more than three dozen conferences that explored every facet of mobile money, mobile banking, mobile commerce, mobile couponing and mobile marketing.
Man, that's a lot of talking.
And what was discussed at these confabs and fora (or is it fori)? As that eminent electronic transactions expert Yogi Berra once said, "It was déjà vu all over again."
At one conference after another, panelists, analysts and experts addressed the same issues over and over again, or repeated assertions about smartphone penetration, consumer usage of smart devices and how that behavior is certain to lead inexorably to everyone paying with their phones.
Industry insiders spent their time talking to the same groups of people (other industry insiders), often about the most esoteric parts of payments and technology, to the exclusion of other stakeholders and partners who will have to embrace mobile payments if it's ever to take off.
Meanwhile, what are actual adoption rates like? Does that need an answer?
That's not to say every seminar or symposium was without merit. Many were excellent, and each conference had moments where insightful things were said. (If anything was proven by all of these events, it's that payments has attracted some incredibly smart people.) And several conferences, notably those that included plenty of merchants, were quite valuable if only for finally giving merchants the opportunity to weigh in on a concept that depends on their participation.
That merchants are still interested in mobile payments as a topic of discussion is good news because they haven't been particularly moved by the purported marvels of mobile payments in the real world thus far. As one merchant at an event in March said in reference to his company: "We've never lost a customer because our competitor took mobile payments." That's not a ringing endorsement of mobile payments, but it's a sentiment that encapsulates the thinking of one side of the two-sided mobile payment market.
Reaching out to include other stakeholders to discuss how to push wider adoption of mobile payments is a positive sign that the space may be finally growing up; it shows that many now realize the whole enterprise will meet with limited success unless it includes partners like merchants and technology providers.
Another good sign, especially at CTIA, was the lack of focus on NFC. It was still there, but unlike 2011, when conferences were dominated by talk of NFC as though the technology itself was synonymous with mobile payments, NFC wasn't always the main course. Discussions of mobile wallets, which bring together a number of technologies, may actually mean the industry gets that it's not the technology that matters — it's figuring out how to make mobile payments a value-add to merchants and consumers.
Making transactions in-store or on a mobile device simpler and easier, whether through NFC or in the cloud or with pixie dust, is a step forward for everyone, but especially for retailers and their customers who can be forgiven for not caring whether they swipe a card or tap a phone to make a payment.
Focusing on the value consumers and merchants derive from combining mobile technology with payments is the key to creating an actual mobile payment industry that will survive. And if that industry finally starts talking about creating value, even when it's talking to itself, perhaps it will then figure how to spread its message to the audiences who matter most: retailers and consumers.
James Wester is a technology writer and blogger with over 15 years of experience in marketing and communications in the technology and payments sectors. Prior to joining MobilePaymentsToday.com as editor he worked as Director of Corporate Communications for Chase Paymentech and ran payment operations for AOL. James has a BA in English from Drury University in Springfield, MO and an MS in IT Management from the University of Virginia.