Isis launched its mobile payments platform in Salt Lake City, UT and Austin, TX today, in a limited, initial rollout that's probably best viewed as a tech test more than an NFC payments panacea. We've know for quite some time that these would be Isis' launch markets (after numerous delays), and we also had a basic idea of how the system would work: NFC. What wasn't so widely-known is the fact that Isis uses the SIM secure element method to store payment credentials.
This is in contrast to Google Wallet's method, where your virtual MasterCard (used as the medium through which your payments are processed) is stored in a secure element that is typically included as a part of the NFC chip.
This means that in order to use Isis, your phone must have an Isis-friendly SIM card. And that in turn means that in order to use Isis on an older handset (read: all Isis handsets so far), you'll need to go to your local carrier store and get a new SIM. The SIM is (we're assuming) free, but I wouldn't doubt if this one little step ends up being a substantial barrier to initial adoption, until those SIMs are just included as standard with new phones.
Anyway, here's the (incomplete) list of supported phones:
- Verizon (official PR)
- T-Mobile (official PR)
- AT&T (official PR)
- One X (unknown if supported at launch)
- Galaxy S III (unknown if supported at launch)
If you're not familiar with Isis, you'll probably be hearing about it a lot more in the next year. Isis is, technically speaking, an independent company. But its existence rather heavily depends on a $100 million capital investment split between AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Those three carriers have all chosen Isis as their official mobile payment platform, and it's widely believed that this decision has led to some economic and technical collusion against competing systems like Google Wallet, whose only national carrier support comes from Sprint. And that hasn't exactly gone well.
While Wallet now does support all credit cards (through a "virtual card" workaround), it remains to be seen if Google will ever be able to get over the "supported device" hurdle that has so plagued it. Even on day one of launch, Isis' handset support is already a lot more appealing than Wallet's. And that gap, unless something changes, is only bound to widen, as the carriers now have real motivation to make hardware compatible with an NFC payment service.
It's only two cities, but if you look at the businesses, the list really is quite impressive. In Salt Lake City, there are 493 individual business locations equipped with Isis-friendly terminals, and in Austin, there are 463. That list includes:
- Rite Aid
- Jamba Juice
- Taco Cabana
- Home Depot
- Sports Authority
- Whole Foods
- Foot Locker
- Jack In The Box
- Dairy Queen
You may have noticed that these big, recognizable chains map on quite well to the list of MasterCard PayPass partners, and thus are all probably Google Wallet-compatible, as well. But there are hundreds of smaller businesses in there, too. While expanding the geographic scope of Isis' coverage will obviously be a big obstacle in the coming years, the list of compatible businesses and phones at launch will definitely make for an interesting microcosm of the mobile payments battle.
As to cards, while Isis does only support Chase, Capital One, and American Express cards for now, we know that all the major payment processors are already on-board with the system. And if you have credit cards, chances are you have one from the aforementioned three. Along with compatibility promises from pretty much every major point-of-sale terminal company operating in the US, it does seem that Isis has been doing its homework.
We'll be watching this unfold carefully, and I'm sure Google will, too. And if you're in Salt Lake City or Austin and have a compatible device (remember - you need a new SIM card), check out the apps for each carrier, below.