Here’s how promise met reality with several systems I tried:
You can enter any credit or debit card into LevelUp’s app. You get $2 off your first purchase at each store and other discounts after you’ve spent a certain amount there. The store has a phone that photographs the bar code on your app and sends it to LevelUp for processing. LevelUp charges your card and pays the store.
At two pizzerias, the system picked up my bar code fine, even with shaky hands, though it failed at a pita place when I had my phone slightly angled. A manager had to be called in. The other bar code system I used was on the app for Dunkin’ Donuts. It works only with the store’s gift cards, so you’d have to buy one with a credit card first. Unfortunately, the register’s scanner was broken when I tried to order breakfast, and it took three employees to transfer the order to another register. This app lets you pay by tapping your device on a card reader at a store. It uses a wireless technology called near-field communications, or NFC, something that is starting to appear on devices running Google’s Android mobile software.
A few dozen national chains accept Google Wallet using card readers equipped with MasterCard’s PayPass technology. That includes at least four close to my home or office, but many more accept plastic.
The bigger problem: The app works with only a small number of Android phones on Sprint’s network. The iPhone doesn’t have the hardware. The other big wireless carriers have blocked or made it difficult to get Google’s app even on devices that have the right hardware. That’s because Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile are jointly developing a competing wallet system called Isis. Can’t everyone just get along?
The Pay With Square app lets you pay simply by giving the store your name, once you add a photo of yourself. The app uses location technology such as GPS to find nearby stores that accept Square. You choose one and tell the store your name. The store sees names and photos for Square users nearby and chooses your account to charge.
Starbucks recently signed on to accept Square. So I tried to buy a chai latte with it the other day, only to face befuddled employees not knowing what I was talking about. Turns out the payments won’t be accepted until this fall, and initially some stores will require bar codes instead of accepting your name. But a few things might keep me away from mobile payments for good: With several competing systems, it’s a pain to keep track of who accepts what, let alone which phones work with which program. As more get announced, mobile payment will be even more of a mess.
Imagine if your dry cleaner takes only dollars, your grocery store takes only euros and your gas station requires the Norwegian kroner. Businesses behind mobile payments need to start working together. It’s fine to compete, but make the competing systems compatible.
Mobile payment services need to figure out how to ensure that you get the same credit card rewards and benefits as you would paying with plastic.
It’s going to be a long journey. To use a baseball analogy, we’re still in batting practice during spring training, not even the first inning of a real game yet.
I look forward to a day when I can leave all my cards at home, but that day may never happen if business considerations trump consumer convenience.