In 2012, dozens of big retailers like Walmart, Target, CVS and Best Buy banded together to create their own smartphone payments network and mobile wallet. Two years later, that payment platform finally has a name, CurrentC, and a launch timeline, 2015.
The Merchant Customer Exchange, or MCX, has private pilots going on in several member stores in different parts of the country, but on Wednesday it said it would expand that pilot program to many more stores throughout 2014 and launch commercially in 2015 on a regional and national level. The details of the rollout are admittedly a bit vague, but there’s no denying the scale CurrentC could achieve when it’s fully operational.
MCX’s membership runs 110,000 retail locations, including not just the aforementioned big box retailers, but also restaurants like the Olive Garden and Dunkin’ Donuts, clothing merchants like the Gap, convenience stores like 7-Eleven and even airport and airline concession companies like HMSHost.
CurrentC is designed to be more than just a swipe-less smartphone payments method. According to MCX, it will be a repository for its members’ loyalty cards and a means of distributing, storing and redeeming digital coupons and special offers. CurrentC’s functions will also integrate directly with MCX members’ own mobile apps.
What CurrentC doesn’t do is support Near Field Communications, the contact-less transaction technology used by competing platforms Isis (which today renamed itself SoftCard) and Google Wallet. Instead, it will use digital QR codes generated by its smartphone app. Instead of storing credit card data in the phone itself, it will remain in the cloud and the smartphone app will generate a token that will verify the shopper’s presence and identity and trigger the transaction between store and bank.
The timing of the announcement may not be coincidence, given increasingly credible rumors indicate that Apple will launch its own NFC-based mobile payments system next week when it unveils the latest iteration of the iPhone. NFC has already begun penetrating deep into the Android ecosystem, but Apple has been one of the biggest obstacles to making smartphone contactless payments a reality.
Even if the new iPhone does support NFC, that doesn’t mean it will support MCX’s CurrentC. Carriers are already blocking alternative payment systems from their smartphones so they can’t compete with their own Isis/SoftCard wallets. The mobile wallet space is becoming a very territorial one, and MCX appears to be engaging in the same turf war. MCX members like Best Buy are reportedly shutting down NFC capabilities at their payment terminals, clearing the way for their own digital wallets.