Google buys Softcard, teams up with carriers on mobile payments

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Google and the mobile carriers have long been at odds over mobile payments, but faced with the runaway success of Apple Pay, the two rivals have become friends. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are selling their mobile wallet joint venture Softcard to Google for an undisclosed amount, Google and Softcard revealed on Monday in separate blog posts, and they have agreed to pre-install Google Wallet on their Android smartphones starting this fall.

That’s quite a full circle to arrive at, considering that for the last three years the three operators actively blocked Wallet from their devices in blatant protectionism for their own mobile payments service Isis. The problem was that Isis, which changed its name to Softcard last year, was slow to arrive to market, meaning few Android phones had access to any kind of near-field-communications (NFC)–based wallet.

That left the nascent smartphone contactless payment market stillborn in the U.S. until [company]Apple[/company] stepped in with Apple Pay. Apple Pay is not only available on every iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus (as well as the forthcoming Apple Watch), but it also built in a much bigger ecosystem for its service, bringing card-issuing bands and online merchants to the table that neither [company]Google[/company] nor Softcard managed to attract.

Those two also-ran wallets are obviously feeling Apple’s heat, so instead of battling it out in the Android space, they’re teaming up, which should make banks, merchants and especially Android-owning consumers happy. It probably would have made more sense to sign this deal a year earlier, though, as other companies are trying to fill the vacuum the Isis-Google war created with their own Android wallets.

Samsung last week bought universal digital credit card startup LoopPay, which uses an alternate technology to NFC that gives it access to most point-of-sale terminals in the market. As I wrote last week, Samsung still has to add a few missing pieces to its payments puzzle – most notably direct partnership with the banks – but there’s a good chance we might see the first Samsung contactless payments app debut in the Samsung Galaxy S6 when it is unveiled at Mobile World Congress next week.

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