The mobile commerce revolution will be messy

It's a Wild West of competing apps and services for both payments and shopping tools

Chances are you're doing mobile commerce today, even if you don't realize it. If you pay for your Starbucks via your smartphone with an app like Square, you're doing m-commerce. That's fairly obvious. But if a roving clerk at a store handles your checkout, that's m-commerce, too -- retailers such as at Nordstrom Rack are getting rid of cash registers and using iPod Touch- or iPhone-based systems instead. They may also be using handheld point-of-sales terminals from old-line providers like NCR and Motorola Solutions. If you do price checks or product research from your smartphone before you go to a store or while you're in one, that's m-commerce too. According to market researcher Parks Associates, one in eight Americans already buy physical goods from mobile devices.

M-commerce is rapidly appearing on all sorts of fronts. But don't expect m-commerce to become commonplace or predictable any time soon. We're in the early days of experimentation and vendor jockeying, and buyers, developers, and providers are in for a messy time.

[ Apple's iPod Touch is fast becoming the new cash register. | Galen Gruman says, "Think mobile wallets, not mobile payments." | Subscribe to InfoWorld's Consumerization of IT newsletter today. ]

More payments system than you can shake a stick at
M-commerce is becoming -- within the industry, at least -- a hot topic. Dozens of startups are trying to bring mobile payments to the masses, though only Square has gained any real traction. Google's been trying to do the same with its Google Wallet, which so far has also fallen flat. Apple's Passbook service seems to be slowly moving into the payments direction. PayPal is in the mobile game, too. The credit card companies, fearful of losing business, have a weak effort called Isis in limited trials. The cellular carriers have been exploring the idea for more than a decade, but so far have not made a serious on m-commerce outside of Africa. And a group of retailers, including powerhouse Wal-Mart, have launched their own effort called the Mobile Commerce Exchange to create a mobile payments platform for use in their stores.

It's a Wild West as startups, nontraditional providers such as Google, traditional providers, and the credit card companies vie for the transaction fees that come with being a payment system. Chances are we'll have multiple payment apps for the next several years as merchants try out different systems until a handful dominate, as the four major credit card companies do today for "traditional" payments.

Payments will consolidate, at least in the behind-the-scenes processing. Where it should be more interesting to users and developers alike is on the front end: shopping sites and apps. If you've used the Amazon Mobile app, you have an idea of how powerful a good mobile shopping experience can be. It should also be obvious, but isn't always, that m-commerce and e-commerce are kissing cousins, not separate efforts or independent experiences.

The show-rooming challenge
Apps like Amazon Mobile and the bar-code-scanning apps that check prices, like Red Laser, scare the bejesus out of traditional retailers, who see customers walk into their stores to check out goods in person, research features and prices from their smartphones (especially at stores like Best Buy where you can never really trust what the salesperson is saying), then buy online. It's called show-rooming, and it puts the fear in traditional retailers. Wal-Mart Stores is the exception; it welcomes show-rooming because its massive scale -- it accounts for 8 percent of U.S. retail sales -- means it can undercut almost anyone and has almost nothing to lose from the trend.

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