Mobile payment provider Isis readies national rollout

After a quiet trial in Salt Lake City and Austin, Isis looks to get louder about its mobile-payment service.

Pay with your smartphone at the cash register with the Isis mobile payment platform. Isis

Isis, the mobile-payments joint venture backed by the major wireless carriers, is ready to make its national debut.

Isis said on Tuesday that it plans to launch its mobile-payment service across the nation later this year. The joint venture, created by a partnership formed between Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and T-Mobile, had been quietly testing out the service in two trials markets, Salt Lake City and Austin, Texas.

"This is significant for us," Isis CEO Michael Abbott told CNET. "We have been heads down and focused on getting it right. We're now ready to let the world know we're coming."

Isis is just one of several initiatives out in the marketplace attempting to replace your wallet with a smartphone. Using a technology called near-field communication, or NFC, a consumer can wave their phone at a point-of-sales terminal to pay for goods -- a process the industry has coined contactless payments.

The mobile-payments area remains a hotbed of interest, drawing in tech powerhouses such as Google, which pushes its own rival Google Wallet service as its contactless payment method of choice. After a splashy launch two years ago, the service has failed to go mainstream.

Part of the issue has been the lack of infrastructure supporting NFC, which is likely why Isis took so long with its trials and remained so quiet. Only recently has NFC made its way into smartphones in a big way, as well as to the payment terminals in drug stores and taxis. Isis said there were 20 million smartphones equipped with NFC, and a quarter of the top 100 retailers are deploying, or have already deployed, NFC in their check-out terminals.

Abbott declined to comment on when exactly Isis would launch later this year, but promised a wide rollout. He teased a series of announcements that would expand the capabilities of the Isis mobile-payment service as well as sign up new merchant and bank partners.

While Google controls Google Wallet and manages the service, Isis has attempted to take a more open route, inviting multiple banks, handset vendors, and merchants to jump on to its standards-based platform. Isis had taken criticism early on because it had attempted to take a cut of each transaction, but now derives its revenue from service fees it charges to companies riding on its platform.

During the trial, Isis found that users were willing to try mobile payments once they saw it in practice, but Abbott said the challenge was getting to see it. He added that while Isis factored in the fact that consumers wouldn't know much about mobile payments, it didn't factor in the sales associate on the other end handling the payment.

At first, the sales associates would stare at the transaction confused. But the sales staff grew comfortable around the system, and it became commonplace roughly three to four months into the nine-month trial, Abbott said.

"Once you learn it, it becomes innate," he said.

One hurdle to mobile payments is the iPhone, which doesn't have NFC and can't take advantage of the Isis system. Isis is testing a sleeve that goes over the device and has an NFC chip embedded. The tests are internal, and Isis hasn't yet released the sleeves into the wild.

The company plans to support BlackBerry and Windows Phone as well.

While Isis has been lining up big retailers to sign up for the service, Abbott said that the local retailers in the trial markets were quick to adopt the system.

Big name players such as Coke and Jamba Juice are interested in Isis because they consumers can bundle together their credit cards and rewards programs in one location. That increases brand loyalty and provides the retailer with a quick way to shoot a coupon into the phone.

The technology made it easy for different partners to jump aboard, Abbott said.

Whether mobile payments catches on nationwide -- something it has failed to do so far -- remains to be seen.

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About the author

Roger Cheng is the executive editor in charge of breaking news for CNET News. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade. He's a devoted Trojan alum and Los Angeles Lakers fan.

 

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