Mobile payment revolutionizes how we pay for things. It replaces cash and traditional credit cards with payment apps on smartphones, wearables, and contactless money cards. In this article, we explain how that works, and the benefits and challenges of mobile payment.
Residents of Beijing can make it through the day without cash, if they want to, but rarely without their smartphone. In supermarkets or restaurants they pay via app. That also goes for the electricity, phone or gas bill. They use the payment app AliPay to call a taxi and pay for the ride when they reach their destination.
The smartphone app is also used for online shopping. AliPay, with its 400 million users, is far from being the only payment app in China, however. The messaging service WeChat also has an integrated payment service, and one billion people use the program. In 2016, both apps were used to move almost three trillion dollars, according to a United Nations study. That’s a little less than the gross domestic product of Germany in 2016, as a study conducted by the International Monetary Fund confirms.
Mobile payment is cashless payment, usually via mobile devices like smartphones or tablets, but also on fitness trackers, smartwatches or smart rings. In concert with the mobile Internet, these devices enable a new way of paying for things that’s convenient, flexible, and also saves time. Accordingly, mobile payment is equally attractive for financial service providers, retailers, and consumers.
Mobile payment is a global trend. China is one of countries driving the boom, with smartphones already being used there in everyday life for mobile payment as a matter of course. According to the “China Mobile Payment Report 2017,” the transaction rate has grown by 381 percent – within a year.
Germany is lagging behind in an international comparison, with German consumers being more skeptical. They fear hacker attacks, for instance, and are concerned about data privacy. 47 percent prefer to stick with cash and 25 percent with debit and credit cards, at least for the time being, according to a GfK study conducted for the German Banking Association. In addition, major providers like Apple Pay and Android Pay have not yet been introduced in Germany. Although various mobile payment systems exist, the market continues to be confusing for customers.
In addition, mobile payment is not generally free. Just like credit cards incur fees, mobile payment providers demand a fee for their service. That includes, for example, fees for the account, for topping up credit, for transactions, or for payments abroad.
There are two options for mobile payment: If someone uses their smartphone to make an online purchase, they use what’s referred to as remote online payment. This requires a credit card or a PayPal account, for instance. PayPal is a service for sending money virtually to other people. The account is topped up in advance, or the amount is withdrawn from the user’s bank account. Depending on the method used, the user enters their credit card details into the smartphone app or logs into PayPal with their e-mail address and password.
If, in turn, the user is standing in front of a ticket vending machine or at the checkout in a store, they can use the “contactless payment” method, which is made possible primarily through the near-field communication (NFC) technology, but also through QR codes as well as Bluetooth in the future. If the amount is below 25 euros, the user does not have to enter a PIN or sign. Even in the case of smaller amounts, a safety mechanism comes into play. If an amount cumulates up to 100 euros, the user still has to enter a PIN.
NFC stands for near-field communication. Just like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, it involves two chips communicating wirelessly with each other, but with a slower data transfer rate. In addition, the chips cannot be more than four centimeters apart, which means that only small amounts of data can be transferred. NFC is being used in more and more areas, such as data exchange, mobile payment or ticketing. Users of most car sharing services also unlock their rental car with an NFC card or an NFC-enabled smartphone. The benefit: It’s faster and more convenient than entering a PIN or having to sign something. At the same time, it’s difficult to intercept the transferred data. Unlike credit card payments, all the data is transferred in encrypted form.
For contactless payment to work, stores, on the one hand, have to be equipped with appropriate card terminals and offer the service. In Germany, this is still more the exception than the rule. The mobile payment option is advertised with an icon comprising four white arcs.
On the other hand, the buyer or customer needs an NFC-enabled device for contactless payment. Such devices can be credit cards or smartcards with a radio chip, as well as smartphones and wearables like a fitness tracker or a ring. Smartphones and the like also require the right payment app. Vodafone customers, for example, can use the provider’s Wallet app. Other services are also available (see sidebar). To complete a purchase, the user opens the payment app and holds the device or card at a distance of no more than 4 centimeters from the terminal. For amounts exceeding 25 euros, the PIN also needs to be entered. Payment is first confirmed by a beep, and “OK” is then shown on the display. The transaction is thus completed very quickly.
In countries like the U.S., China, Japan and the UK, smartphone users can pay via the payment system of their respective phone manufacturer. In Germany, however, Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Huawei Pay and Microsoft Wallet have not yet entered the market. The start of Apple Pay has been expected for some time now, with September 2017 being the latest estimate. But nothing has happened so far. The services are linked with the credit card companies and can be basically used wherever contactless payment is available.
There are other ways to make mobile payments, even without an NFC-enabled smartphone or payment card. Customer apps offered by the Rewe and Edeka supermarket chains, for example, allow customers to pay by scanning a QR code. The provider Cashcloud offers an NFC chip on a sticker that users affix to their mobile phone. With Cringle and PayPal, users send money via e-mail or text message to companies or other users.
Boon and Pey are providers that differ somewhat from the various payment systems. Boon is a prepaid service for Android devices. Before the users pays for something, they have to top up their Boon account via bank transfer or credit card.
Instead of euros, users can also pay using the purely digital Bitcoin currency – at least wherever it’s accepted. The startup Pey has developed a wallet app for making purchases directly in stores, but at this point it only works in Hanover. A number of online shops do, however, allow payment with Bitcoins. The decentralized and anonymous payment system works without a connection to banks and is considered secure thanks to its blockchain technology. A blockchain is a digital cash ledger that Bitcoin users administer jointly.
A distinction is generally made between closed and open payment systems. In closed systems, customers are more limited, since this is where individual retail chains each offer their own payment app that can only be used in their stores. Open payment systems allow mobile payment in any store with appropriate payment terminals. For this, retailers bring third-party providers on board to operate the service: so-called mobile wallet platforms.
Various payment systems are currently in operation worldwide:
For German consumers, security always plays a major role, and mobile payment is no exception. For 79 percent of users, it has top priority for making mobile payments according to a survey carried out by consulting firm PwC. But where do the risks lie?
Consumers fear that their data could be intercepted and misused before, during or after a payment transaction. In addition, several items of information are linked together: purchase and payment data with location data, making it easy for data thieves to generate a user profile.
However, technology companies are developing increasingly secure and innovative chips for NFC-enabled devices that store sensitive payment data in a secure environment.
There are two major reasons why NFC technology is considered secure: The signal range is limited to a few centimeters, and data is transferred in a safe form. Users wanting additional protection against hackers can buy special, shielded cases for smartphones, for instance. Stealing money via NFC, however, is a rather bad idea, since most transactions are made via registered scanning devices and can therefore be traced.
But what happens when the user loses their smartphone, wearable or payment card, or if they’re stolen? Such a loss should, of course, be reported as soon as possible, but the damage will most likely be limited, because the thieves would have to enter the right PIN for any amounts exceeding 25 euros.
An additional option is helpful in the case of payment cards: An e-mail or text message is sent to the customer every time a transaction is made, which means fraud is exposed early on and can be stopped by the providers.
There are also global security standards for mobile payment – the same as for card payments. They were defined by the largest international credit card companies, including Mastercard, Visa, JCB, American Express, Discover, and Union Pay. For ticket solutions, Infineon also relies on CIPURSE, the industry’s only open and flexible security standard.
Experts are certain that mobile payment will be the dominant payment method of the future, as more and more solutions with various models are becoming established worldwide. For example, Swedes no longer pay, they “swish”. In 2016, 43 percent of the country’s citizens used the Swish app for transactions, according to its operator. In South Africa, supermarket customers verify their purchase with a biometric Mastercard by using their fingerprint, while the Chinese counterpart will soon use facial recognition. In Kenya, a Vodafone subsidiary introduced the simple M-Pesa mobile payment service as early as 2007. Today, it’s used by more than 30 million people to pay small amounts via credit stored on the SIM card.
In Germany, the NFC-enabled payment terminal infrastructure is expected to be available across the country by 2020. It remains to be seen, however, whether there will still be just as many competing technologies and providers are there are now, or if a few major providers will dominate with open, uncomplicated wallet systems. That’s why experts are waiting with bated breath for the global giants to enter the German market: Apple Pay, Android Pay, WeChat, and AliPay.
According to the PwC study, the majority of Germans are open to mobile payment. They want a payment app that’s not only secure, but also practical. That requires uniform standards and that users can use one system to pay everywhere.