Sorry, Google Wallet fans, but Apple may have just pulled the mobile-payment rug from under Android's feet. In signature Apple fashion, the new iOS 6 Passbook app takes a shockingly simple approach, which is just why it'll prove a hit.
Google Wallet's dilemma
Now, let's be clear about the mobile-payment situation in America. Using your phone to buy goods and services at retail is still ridiculously hard to do. Sure, you can use Google Wallet to make purchases, that is if you own one of a handful of Android devices and hunt down a short list of participating vendors. That's just not acceptable.
My recent attempts to test-drive Google Wallet proved as much. Even close to a year after the service was announced, the result was an urban odyssey fraught with glitches and snafus. While I enjoyed a few successful transactions, including a sweet Pinkberry treat at trek's end, I could have done without the frustrated looks from fellow shoppers, or one particularly ticked-off NYC cabbie.
Don't get me wrong, Google has made a valiant attempt. As my colleague Maggie Reardon explains, however, the limitations of NFC (Near Field Communication) have become a serious bottleneck, whether for infrastructure deployed in stores or compatible phones.
Another and more critical challenge to Google Wallet's mass adoption is the fight for the upper hand in this high-stakes game. For any business, controlling access to the customer isn't merely political, it's a way to build loyalty and entice more sales. I'd say that's why Google's sole financial partner is Citibank MasterCard and the retail stores signed on are few and far between.
If you're a successful national retailer or business, you'll want customers to use your own app or shopping service and not have someone else enroll and control your customer base. On the flip side, as a customer I'd like to use whatever payment credential or brand card I want to when I shop.
A new way to pay
Apple's Passbook app isn't out yet, but from what I can tell it sidesteps the major pitfalls Google Wallet has run into, namely NFC and limited payment methods. It merely serves as a collector and repository for receipts, loyalty cards, and boarding passes from other retailers' existing apps.
Relying on software and QR codes, Passbook also avoids the limitation of static hardware technology. It's more flexible too in that users can add apps from vendors they trust or already have a relationship with. It's pretty diabolical, actually, and I wouldn't be surprised if Apple charges a cut to be a listed store within the Passbook application.
I do see one big potential stumbling block, that being stores needing to be equipped with the special laser scanners built to read smartphone screens. Of course if a company already has a retail app, chances are good it has invested in the necessary infrastructure. We'll just have to see how it plays out, but the way things stand, my money is on a software-centered mobile-payment world rather than one tied to hardware. Apple, not Google, looks to have doubled down on this notion.