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Softcard is still kicking: The carriers’ mobile wallet now works at McDonald’s nationwide

Apple Pay may be getting all of the attention, but the carriers’ competing mobile wallet Softcard isn’t just rolling over. The Android smartphone payments platform formerly known as Isis is now up and running in 14,000 McDonald’s locations in the U.S., and can be used to pay for Big Macs and molten-lava filled pies at both the counter and the drive-thru.

The launch isn’t exactly a surprise since [company]McDonald’s[/company] was one of Isis’s original trial partners in its Austin and Salt Lake City test markets. Gigaom’s Stacey Higginbotham was making payments with an Isis-enabled Android phone at McDonald’s all the way back in 2012. But McDonald’s wasn’t part of Isis’s commercial nationwide launch in 2013. Since then, however, the newly renamed Softcard has been expanding into some major retail chains, including Subway’s 26,000 U.S. locations.

No matter what you think of Softcard and the carriers’ attempts to manage your wallet, this is good news for the mobile payments industry. It shows many of the biggest retailers are sitting out the turf wars that have plagued mobile turf wars that have plagued the mobile payments space. If you want to make a contactless payment at McDonald’s you now have three options: Google Wallet and Softcard on Android and Apple Pay on the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus (you can also buy a special Softcard case if you’re really committed to using it on the iPhone). McDonald’s may soon have a fourth means as well. It’s rumored to be working on its own NFC smartphone payments app.

Image: Shutterstock / Sinisa Botas
Image: Shutterstock / Sinisa Botas

What McDonald’s is saying it wants to make buying a Quarter Pounder and fries as easy as possible for customers so it’s not pinning them down to a single mobile wallet. After all, this whole mobile payments thing works only if it’s both ubiquitous and convenient. If have to use a different mobile wallet at every mobile retailer I go to, then screw it: I’ll just stick with plastic.

Unfortunately there is a big chunk of the retail industry that doesn’t buy that logic and is trying to lock their customers down to a particular wallet. I’m referring to the Merchant Customer Exchange (MCX), a consortium of some of the country’s biggest retailers — including [company]Walmart[/company], [company]Target[/company] and [company]Best Buy[/company] – that recently announced its mobile payments system, CurrentC, would launch in 2015.

MCX retailers use the same point-of-sale terminals and back-end software as Apple Pay, Softcard and [company]Google[/company] Wallet and their payment processors support those services, as exemplified by the fact that several MCX members inadvertently started accepting Apple Pay transactions at launch even though they weren’t officially Apple partners. [company]Rite Aid[/company] and [company]CVS[/company], however, shut off Apple Pay capabilities a few days later, just as MCX members Best Buy and 7-Eleven banned Isis/Softcard from their payment terminals last spring. Target is actively participating in Apple Pay on the in-app payments from the phone. It just can’t work with Apple on in-store payments because of its MCX ties.

The new Apple Pay in the Passbook wallet
The new Apple Pay in the Passbook wallet

MCX probably has plenty of financial incentive for doing so. CurrentC will lean heavily on payments linked directly to customer’s checking account, which will ultimately save its merchants on transaction fees. Smartphone payment systems like Apple Pay and Softcard mean more middlemen in the payment chain, adding complexity to every transaction and reinforcing or even increasing the per-transaction fees that make credit and debit payments tick.

But ultimately any payments system that isn’t cash or barter is trade-off between cost and convenience. Some day we may actually find ourselves in a world where smartphone contactless payments are ubiquitous and consumers can leave their plastic cards at home. If that happens and companies like Best Buy and Target are still limiting their customers’ options, then those customers will start looking elsewhere for their shopping needs.

9 Responses to “Softcard is still kicking: The carriers’ mobile wallet now works at McDonald’s nationwide”

  1. dancenyc

    Almost from the launch of Apple Pay Subway eateries were able to process it, although most employees did not know what to do with it.

    As of 2015, however, Subway mysteriously stopped accepting Apple Pay.

    Apple knows nothing of this. And Subway doesn’t really have customer service to speak of.

    PayPass (or Blink) which uses the same NFC contactless technology did work at Subway today.

  2. In my area, Softcard is accepted at only 4 retailers. It actually works at only 2 of them, Walgreens and McDonalds. My attempts to use them at Subway and Harris Teeter have failed.

  3. CurrentC is the chance for retailers to give customers ‘credit card’-like benefits without the banks’ credit card merchant fees.

    Only two reasons why I use a credit card: 1% cash back and up to 45 days delay from the time I purchase to the time I actually pay.

    So CurrentC retailers should get smart and give a 2% instant discount for using a checking account to make a purchase (instead paying a 2+% credit card merchant fee per transaction).

    It would also be great if through CurrentC they gave you a 30 day grace period before debiting your account for the purchase – obviously only available for people with good credit.

    • Mark Mireles

      I have great credit and pay off my CC bill every month. I won’t use debit cards and no way will I use a card that links back to my checking account. If they don’t want to support the credit cards that the majority of people want to use, then I guess they’re just going to see my good ol’ fashioned credit card (pulled out of my wallet) when I shop at their store.

  4. Lee Grissett

    As an Android and Verizon user I chose Google Wallet over ISIS/SoftCard. I’ve been using GW since my Samsung Galaxy Nexus in 2011. GW works in the same places SC does, and even more since it’s a Mastercard and not AMEX. Plus GW lets me use my own cards. As far as Apple Pay goes: I want them to succeed as well because I really want NFC to be a viable option instead of being force fed MCX.

  5. I have used Softcard for a number of months and was reasonable happy with it. I have now removed it from my phone. The Softcard stopped working about 3 months ago and since then I have jumped through hoops trying to get it working again. The issue is that there appears to be three partners in this mess. They are Verizon, Softcard and Samsung. For over two months the buck has been passed as to who to blame and what is causing the issue of the card not working. The last request this week was to do a hard reset on my phone which means I would have to re install everything on my phone. If this solution had come to me in the beginning I may have done so, but after two months of “Trying” something else that did not work I am unwilling to go further. So as long as the app works it is heaven, but went it quits, it more resembles hell. If Paypal gets some vendors to use there app, I like the looks of it.

    • There are more partners. Only difference between me and you is different carrier, T-Mobile. Also have Samsung. App works fine WHERE it’s supposed to work. Don’t forget it won’t work anymore at CVS and Rite-Aid and who knows where else now. That’s the terminal – merchant decision, not a failure of the phone, carrier, app or special micro chip. I agree though, if it doesn’t work for another reason, how do you know what is causing the problem – older phone no longer supported, bad chip, disenchanted carrier, buggy app?

      From experience, and this isn’t news to most, older phones, some even just few months old will so unsupported at some point by apps. Try being a developer and maintaining app integrity across 100’s of types of phones, even if they are all under Android. I bitched when my BofA app stopped working on my HTC phone. Other people were complaining about the app not working on their phones as well and contine to blame 100% of the problem on the app. My phone was a year old. Ended up needing a newer one anyway, bought the Avant and the BofA works fine. Sometimes it sucks when technology moves this fast.

  6. fwiw, it appears that these systems are not mutually exclusive. I just bought a quarter pounder today from McDonalds with ApplePay (NFC). However as I believe the CurrentC system is optical (QR) based, one needs separate scanning hardware to support that.