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Banks Bet on Phone-y Money

Consumers may soon be able to leave their wallets at home — in a few cities, anyway.

Isis, a mobile-wallet venture from AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, announced today that Chase, Capital One and Barclaycard customers will be able to link their cards to the new technology when it launches this summer. Like competitor Google Wallet, Isis promises users the ability to pay for purchases by tapping their phone against a sensor at the register, and also transmits loyalty card information and coupons. (See mobile wallet technology in action.) Visa and Vodafone also announced a partnership Monday to create their own mobile wallet.

Despite their promise, digital wallets have been slow to take off. Only a few handsets contain the technology to store card information and process transactions, bank partners have been limited, and relatively few merchants have kiosks that accept tap-to-pay transactions. The involvement of Chase, the nation’s biggest bank, is promising because it brings to the table a large number of cardholders and merchants, says Dennis Moroney, a research director at Tower Group. Six handset manufacturers — HTC, LG, Motorola, Research in Motion, Samsung and Sony Ericsson — promise capable phones by this summer, says Jim Stapleton, chief sales officer for Isis.

Widespread adoption is still a few years out, however. “You still have to jump through a couple of hoops here,” says Mark Beccue, an analyst at ABI Research. It’s unclear whether the new handsets will be ones consumers will be interested in, and mobile wallet technology is still so new that it is unlikely people will buy a phone just to try it, he says. Google offers just one handset, the Nexus S, for Google Wallet. Plus, Isis’s test launch is limited to Salt Lake City and Austin, Texas. Stapleton says that soft launch could last up to a year before the network readies for a nationwide rollout.

Banks and wireless carriers may also have some convincing to do on the technology’s security and privacyEarlier this month, security experts found a flaw in Google Wallet that enabled thieves to access funds on prepaid cards linked to the app. But Beccue says the risks are minimal due to precautions in both the phone and software. “They’re more secure than anything we’re doing right now,” he says. “A phone has a lot more protection than a plastic card, and it’s certainly more secure than cash.”


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