For the last few years, mobile payments has been like a storm on the horizon: They’ve generated a lot of conversation but haven’t arrived with much energy. But 2012 has been a pivotal year, as many of the big mobile payment systems have finally started to roll out. Starbucks’ announcement this fall that it would partner with Square to offer mobile payments at its thousands off U.S. stores showed that some very big retail players are starting to make this payment option a reality.
The numbers of people actually using so-called mobile wallets — that is, paying for things with their mobile phones — are still small: Most of the companies don’t provide usage numbers, but one of the few that does, Starbucks, said it did 26 million mobile transactions last year. Gartner, meanwhile, predicts there will be 32.8 million people in North American using mobile payments this year.
Mobile payments are still constrained by a number of things including the need, in most cases, for users to have smartphones. Some systems also require consumers and merchants to make specific hardware upgrades to process mobile transactions. And many consumers also don’t see a big advantage yet to using an alternative to cash and credit, or they have security concerns.
Indeed, it will take years for mobile payments to supplant traditional wallets, but the stage is now set for a mobile-payment battle. Here’s a look at some of the best-known names in this field and how they stack up against each other.