Isis CEO: Foundation is here for mobile payments

The path to using your phone to pay for goods has been a long and windy one, but the head of Isis believes the time is right.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
3 min read
Isis CEO Michael Abbott speaking at the Mobile World Congress trade show in February. Roger Cheng/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain -- When Michael Abbott took the job as chief executive of mobile payments venture Isis, his mother demanded that he make the service easy enough for her to use.

After giving it a go during last year's trials, she put her stamp of approval on the service, Abbott said during his keynote address during the Mobile World Congress trade show on Tuesday.

Indeed, Abbott believes the pieces are set for the broader adoption of mobile payments, or the ability to pay for goods and services with your phone.

"I believe a foundation is in place," Abbott said.

You may not have heard of Isis, but you have certainly heard of its parents. Isis is a joint venture between Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and T-Mobile (and one of the few things they can agree upon), and was set up to get the carriers deeper into the burgeoning mobile payments arena.

It's an area that has long drawn the interest of players from different industries, including Google, Visa and MasterCard, eBay's PayPal, and a host of others. Consumers, however, have been slow to embrace the idea that their phone can replace their physical credit cards, but nevertheless remains a hot area. There's a reason the idea of mobile money was a key topic of discussion at Mobile World Congress.

Indeed, Abbott is optimistic that mobile payments will grow in a big way. He noted that the world would see 300 million smartphones shipped that are capable of using Isis's mobile-payments system. On the merchant end, 95 percent of the new point-of-sale terminals will ship with near-field communications, or NFC, the wireless technology Isis and Google Wallet uses to execute a transaction.

Abbott said Isis has 90 percent of devices covered with the compatible NFC technology, although he counts the iPhone, which needs a specially designed cover to use NFC.

Isis began quietly with two trials, one each in Austin, Texas, and Salt Lake City, but expanded to nationwide availability three months ago. Since then, Isis users tend to tap their phone to pay six to seven times to month. It is also growing at a clip of 50 percent each month, and two-thirds of its users have added a card.

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The payment app actually had a terrible launch, and it received a number of low ratings because it was overly complicated. Isis updated the app, moving from Java to a native app, and presented a cleaner version that strips out the extra menus and distractions and focuses on an individuals credit cards, ATM cards, coupons, and rewards memberships.

Since the launch of the new app, the reviews have been much better, Abbott told CNET in a follow-up interview.

"The old version actually gave you too much info," he said. "We took things you do all of the time and brought it forward."

Isis appears on the cusp of a big promotional push, although Abbott declined to provide details. The company will likely lean on the carriers and other brands to build awareness for its service. It partnered with Jamba Juice to give away free smoothies, and that led to a spot on the Jimmy Kimmel show. He said that he is relying a lot on his partners to drive word of mouth.

"This can't be just about Isis," he said. "We can't do it alone."