On Monday, the first day of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, I waited in line for lunch with our TV team for well over an hour. We all got a simple ham sandwich, a Catalonian staple. And then we ran behind the rest of the day.
This annual conference attracts some 70,000 people. Moving around Fira Gran Via, the brand new venue for the event, is a bit like making your way through the crowd at a One Direction concert, minus the screaming girls. And for as long as the GSM Association has been hosting the Congress, it hasn't been able to feed its attendees in a reasonable timeframe.
Or so I thought. PayPal, thanks to a fortuitously scheduled meeting Monday afternoon, came to my rescue, and I won't ever think about mobile commerce the same way again.
Discussions around mobile commerce (and mobile payments) usually devolve into debates about the best technology for consumers to buy goods online or at the point of sale -- digital wallets, the NFC, the QR code, secure authentication mechanisms like chip and pin, etc. Or the discussion centers on who's in the best position to drive payment standards or run the payment rails.
I'm no longer convinced that any of those things will matter. Or rather, I think they will all matter. After all, mobile commerce involves an ecosystem that begins with a click, or an app on a device, and ends, as any commerce does, at a bank. In between lie payment processors, merchants, evolving point-of-sale equipment manufacturers, mobile operators, credit card companies and more. The alliances are forming quickly.
[ Considering Google Wallet for your bodega? See 5 Things SMBs Should Know About Google Wallet. ]
At Mobile World Congress, for example, Visa and Samsung announced a partnership whereby Visa account information can be loaded onto Samsung's NFC devices, and Samsung will load Visa's PayWave app onto its smartphones. It's an ideal marriage of smartphone leader and payment leader so that consumers can gobble up goods more quickly. Visa senior business leader Brad Greene says the company's PayWave technology is integrated with 70 NFC devices, "with another 70 in the queue."
Each part of the ecosystem wants to accelerate a frictionless "customer experience," a gaggable buzz phrase thrust into every vendor PowerPoint presentation and speech these days. But here the phrase fits.
Back to my team's stomachs. For the rest of the week at Mobile World Congress, each day I went into the "local" tab of the PayPal app on my smartphone; found one of two restaurants using an application called Beat The Q, created by Nick Cloete, the founder and CEO of Australia-based Kounta; ordered lunch for six of our TV crew; paid (using PayPal); and received a confirmation text, followed quickly by a text saying our food was ready. I would then pass by a long line of distressed attendees and pick up my to-go order. All of this happened within five minutes.
Suddenly, all was well with the world. Problem solved. But more came to mind. Imagine, I thought, if my local coffee shop were to let me do this, offer me discounts, suggest new brews, tempt me with new sweets or even use my location to automatically know how far away I am so it could make my coffee just in time and keep it piping hot. Toss Google Now into the mix with Kounta and PayPal, and it's entirely possible. Forget friction; this is the greasy-good stuff. For better or worse, Kounta's Cloete says merchants report that customers using this technology spend 20% more than those who don't.
It's exciting to think about, but it's not really here just yet. As David Strom points out in Why eWallets Still Are Bad News, there's still a lack of consumer confidence to overcome. Merchant confidence is hardly any better. Two merchants were operating Beat The Q at Mobile World Congress, and while Kounta has signed up 500 merchants worldwide, including the Australian Sonoma Bakery, none of them is a global household name and there's no one in the U.S. yet. (I offered the names of my favorite watering holes, though.)
I liked that PayPal generated and emailed me a receipt, but sometimes the app showed me being eight miles away, even when I was within 100 feet. Also, the merchant is supposed to use the PayPal profile picture to identify customers (and, ostensibly, to greet them), but anyone could have grabbed my food before I arrived. It's also probable that if even a fraction of Mobile World Congress attendees used the app, they would have had to rename it "Chaos At The Q." I selfishly held off writing about it until the show was over.
But these are, as they say, first-world problems. There's plenty more innovation grease on its way. EBay executives told me that the mobile divisions of both eBay and PayPal are now gone, that mobile is just baked into their companies. At its stand at Mobile World Congress, eBay was showing off all kinds of applications, like a Toys "R" Us kiosk where the shopper enters buying criteria and gets suggestions based in part on data eBay has in its database of shopping habits.
An eBay spokesman talked about customers using a mobile device to announce they're in a store, either actively (by checking in) or passively (discovery). Or a customer's smartphone turning on a camera view of his store surroundings and showing him only places where his clothing size or shopping desires would suggest he has interest.
For now, I'll be happy enough with a cafe con leche, extra caliente, extra grande. I'll be there in cinco minutos, but I'll skip the jamon sandwich. No mas.