Michael Abbott, the CEO of carrier-backed mobile payments joint venture Isis, has an interesting take on rival Google Wallet: "It's the best thing that could happen."
That's not the sort of thing you would expect to hear from the head of a venture that is planning to roll out its own mobile-payment system, designed to allow consumers to tap their phone on special terminals to pay for goods. Abbott, however, holds a longer-term view of the business, and believes that the entry by multiple parties is a good thing. It generates greater consumer awareness, stirs the various retailers, carriers, handset makers and banks into motion, and generally gets the debate about mobile payments flowing. He doesn't believe there will be any clear-cut winners or losers, and expects to see many options for consumers.
"There will be multiple solutions out there, and none of them are wrong," Abbott said in an interview with CNET, noting that "competition is what this space needs."
Isis, which was formed through a partnership involving AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile USA, is attempting to enter the mobile payments business at a busy time. Google has already launched Google Wallet, although it remains limited to one smartphone on Sprint Nextel, and is only compatible with merchants with newer payment terminals. Visa, meanwhile, is attempting to create its own digital wallet. American Express, which has expressed a preference to partner, on Monday said it would invest $100 million in start-ups devoted to digital payments.
The approach that Isis is taking is wholly different from Google. Isis is working on a neutral platform that serves as a foundation for other parties such as retailers, credit card issuers and payment networks, who can plug in and offer their own services to their customers. Isis doesn't access any of the customer data. Abbott said it is working with a number of different business models, including charging a rental fee to use the platform, or possibly taking a cut of each transaction. The hope is the platform is valuable enough of a tool that companies will be willing to pay to use it.
That's a wholly different approach than Google Wallet, which is largely controlled by Google. Under that model, Google is providing the payment services to retailers, payment networks and banks for free. But in exchange, it gets access to the customer's data, enabling the company to deliver targeted ads.
Abbott declined to say much about the service itself, noting that it's different, but not necessarily saying whether that was a positive or a negative.
"Anything that gets people moving is fine by me," he said.
Abbott said he is talking to many potential partners, who have expressed varying levels of interest. But no one has outright rejected ISIS, he added. In fact, he said many are willing to pay for the service if it means their customers' information remains their own.
"Free is a price I can't afford," he said, was a common expression among the companies he talks to.
Isis started off slowly but has had a few significant announcements in the recent months. The venture managed to strike deals with the four major payment networks: Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover, which was the first to sign up with ISIS.
Its plans are for a trial to begin next year in Salt Lake City and Austin, Texas. Abbott said he wasn't worried that Isis was falling behind Google's own initiative.
Abbott is less concerned about timing because much of the infrastructure is still moving into place. Phones and merchant terminals need a technology called near-field communications to talk with each other. There are few terminals with the necessary NFC chip, and even fewer phones. The Nexus S is one of the few NFC-enabled devices, and is positioned as Google's flagship phone for Google Wallet. The upcoming Galaxy Nexus will also have NFC, as well as a number of other handsets including BlackBerrys.
ISIS is focused on building out the system, improving the customer experience, and making sure all of its partners will be ready. That includes the carriers, handset manufacturers, payment networks, banks and retailers, who all must be able to handle or direct a customer complaint if something goes wrong.
"We absolutely want to get out fast, but we won't put out anything until it's ready," he said. "The customer experience is infinitely more important than speed."