Mobile payments has become a mainstream tech topic in the last couple of years, mirroring the rise of smartphones and application stores. E-commerce is becoming m-commerce. The focus point of the buzz has been the evolution of near-field communications as related to smartphones. The thing is, nobody in the payments industry expects NFC to be a player in mobile payments for years, if ever. In that case, what does the mobile payments ecosystem look like in the short term?

The current mobile payments market centers around several cores: direct carrier billing, mobile wallets, online and offline sales, mobile credit card readers and application stores. During meetings with various mobile payments experts and executives at CTIA last week, the most uttered phrase was: "This is not something I would use to buy a fridge." Where are mobile payments going?

The Non-Promise of NFC

OK, let us get one thing straight: NFC may never be a widely used form of payments. There are so many reasons why it will not be. Foremost, the logistics of NFC are a nightmare. The actual technology is probably ready. The infrastructure around the technology is not. There are too many competing interests coming from above the retail market that creating a universal NFC reader between smartphones and financial services is not going to happen anytime soon. The closest thing to a widely used system would be Mastercard's PayPass, but even as widespread as that is, it is no where near the type of market penetration that would create an inflection point for NFC to take off. Second, PayPass needs a software upgrade to offer any type of deals, something that will be important in the mobile payments world.

See our series on NFC In 2011 for more on the world of NFC payments.

NFC payments on the top of Gartner's Hype Circle

The second half of the NFC conundrum is that there are a lot of hands reaching for the supposed pile of money that NFC payments will enable. Look at Google's announcement of the Wallet product. Or the ISIS partnership between Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T. Google is partnering with Mastercard, CitiBank, Sprint, FirstData, Verifone, VivoTech (the NFC partner), Hypercom, Ingenico and NXP (another NFC partner). All of these large companies are going to want a slice of the pie.

Where does that leave the retailers? You know, the ones that are actually trying to make money with good and services? Sadly, on the outside of the circle. The carriers are the biggest culprits, wanting to take as much as 50% of transaction revenue because it is "going over their pipes." The financial services companies will be happy taking their normal rates in the 1.75% to 3% range as long as there is a promise that more people will pay electronically (read: sans cash). Between retailers, partners and infrastructure, NFC has years to go before it will be viable for all parties involved.

Can the Google Wallet project really push NFC adoption?

What will happen in this time frame? Think about the so-called "4G" technology WiMax. The technology is already becoming antiquated with LTE and all the major carriers are working on the next version after that. Sprint is keeping a hybrid of WiMax and LTE going forward but overall it is a tech that died before it even matured. NFC may be the same. What if there are massive leaps in quantum teleportation in the next several years? Does NFC become the WiMax of the payment world?

Maturation Of Direct Carrier Billing

The "I do not see myself buying a fridge with this" line comes mostly from the direct carrier folks. Direct carrier billing is the perfect area for micro-payments and payments that stem from ease of use. Think of parking. If you could pay for your parking on the street with your phone, would that convenience be worth an extra couple of cents on the dollar to you?

The direct to carrier ecosystem has evolved to the point where it actually makes sense for offline and online use. Zong (acquired by eBay for PayPal integration), PaymentOne and Boku are the leaders in this space. PaymentOne has processed $5 billion in mobile payments and lets users pay with their phone numbers, validating transactions via text. Zong allows that capability as well.

Payment One's "One Care" features, announced last week at CTIA, makes direct to carrier billing safe and secure. Transparency is important in mobile commerce because consumers do not really trust their phones to handle their money quite yet.

The most important aspect of direct to carrier billing now is that the revenue mechanism has been flipped. It used to be that merchants only got some 40% or less of payments while the carriers and partners took the rest. Even with high margin transactions, that is unacceptable. Today, direct to carrier billing provides the merchants with more than 80% of the revenue, sometimes nearly 95%.

The Dongle World: Smartphones As Credit Card Readers

Square, VeriSign and Intuit are pushing hard into the dongle department. Jumio is doing the same thing, just without the dongle. There is not much to be said about the dongle world that we have not already touched on at ReadWriteWeb outside of the notion that it is bringing easy credit card readers to the mobile masses.

The dongle competitors are not worried about what is happening in the ecosytem because it does not really touch their core business. For instance, PayPal does not see NFC or dongles infringing on its business in any way, shape or form. As Laura Chambers, PayPal's head of mobile, said in a recent interview, "we are not worried about much in the ways of competition. There is a lot of white space in the industry for horizontal movement."

What Is PayPal Really Doing?

In the interview with Chambers, the first question I asked was, "Why does it seem like PayPal has become a 'me too' operator in mobile payments?" It is a fair question, even if Chambers balked to acknowledge that PayPal has been in 'me too' mode for the last year or so. PayPal has ignored the dongle movement and NFC is not on its radar as a technology it feels it needs to integrate.

"What is the difference between a tap versus a swipe?" Chambers asked. "We are working with what works in the current infrastructure ... We have sat down with consumers and merchants to work with them on what they want."

PayPal is growing sideways because there is not a ton of room right now to grow vertically.

PayPal will get into NFC solutions when the time is appropriate. Its strategy now is to create as much flexibility for consumers as possible through its mobile wallet program. PayPal's stance is data driven - the company can track when and what consumers buy from mobile phones and tablets. Hence, PayPal is focusing on the shopping end of the spectrum, as opposed to a pure payments play.

"60% of people buy more and spend more on mobile," Chambers said. "But, we see that people are not really buying different things on mobile ... the No. 1 driver of growth in mobile payments is boredom."

That fits in well with what PayPal sees as "couch commerce." They released a study recently saying that mobile shopping is going to boom this holiday season. As such, PayPal is ready to deploy an end-to-end solution for merchants and consumers to reward loyalty and provide deals and offers along with digital receipts.

PayPal believes that it has a lot of room to grow in mobile through these types of horizontal movements. We are also seeing this on a non-mobile front with eBay partnering with Facebook and the Open Graph API and the new X.Commerce initiative that consolidates the PayPal, Zong, Magento, RedLaser and Milo technologies. The company is calling it an "open commerce ecosystem."

Future Of Mobile Payments

This article is the first in a series of the trends in mobile payments that ReadWriteWeb will be working on in the next several months. There are a lot of questions and the answers are just beginning to emerge. Who are the winners in the space? Are retail shops in danger of "becoming expensive fronts for online shopping," as Chambers said in the interview? Does NFC really have potential to disrupt offline payments or is it just cool technology? These questions and more are what we will be tackling in the months to come.