Could The BlackBerry Save Mobile Payments? Maybe It's The Only Thing That Can

Everybody is waiting for Apple in NFC mobile payments—the theory being that the iPhone's try-anything-if-it's-Apple owners will embrace tap-to-pay as soon as the company endorses it. But Apple is in no hurry, and Google Wallet and ISIS aren't exactly taking off, while PayPal prefers phone numbers and PINs. The one player desperate enough to jumpstart NFC mobile payments may be RIM.

Yes, everyone hates the last-generation E-mail king, which on Tuesday (May 29) announced an operating loss and layoffs. But earlier this month RIM also finally agreed to let carriers and banks use NFC-enabled BlackBerrys for payments in Canada—without coupons, ads or a cut for RIM.

That's NFC-payments heresy in the U.S. It's also part of why mobile payments have become a waiting game, and not just for Apple. All the deep-pocketed payments fat cats can afford to wait. They can pay for chains' POS upgrades and make grand plans for squeezing revenue out of mobile payments via coupons or ads, plans that don't have to generate income for years.

Not RIM. It's in trouble. Its old corporate customers—the ones RIM forced to install its server software to support push E-mail—have abandoned it in droves, largely in favor of iPhones. Government agencies still use it, because of the encryption support. But RIM's main growth market now is among young users who like its BBM messaging service (it's sort of like texting on steroids, but with better security).

That transition is killing RIM. But, bizarre as it sounds, those new social-media-obsessed BlackBerry users might be exactly the right people to get NFC payments moving by turning mobile money into a genuine fad. (And maybe save RIM in the process. We have to take the bitter with the sweet.)

And a fad is exactly what mobile payments need to be. The technology works. Security isn't the problem. Enough retail chains have signed up for Google Wallet and ISIS. Card brands and banks are on board. Everything is now in place except a compelling reason—or a stupid excuse—for customers to pay with an expensive phone instead of a cheap rectangle of plastic.

All the compelling reasons have failed to drive mobile payments. But a stupid excuse, such as being the latest fad among young consumers? Yeah, that might work.

That's why everyone has been waiting for Apple. Apple could make NFC payments a fad. But Apple won't. At this point, it looks unlikely that Apple's next iPhone announcement will include mobile payments. Apple goes where customers are. Right now, that's not mobile payments.

But RIM? It's desperate, and it has a huge financial incentive: survival.But RIM? It's desperate. It also already has more NFC-enabled phones out there than anyone else, plus payments experience in places like the Middle East, as well as a huge financial incentive: survival.

That means it's the only phone maker that could say, "Forget coupons and ads and fighting with carriers and banks over who controls NFC payments—let's flood the market with NFC-payment-capable phones. Oh wait, we've already done that. OK, let's actually turn on that payment capability and turn the keys over to carriers and banks. We won't make any money on payments. But if we sell enough phones, we'll stay in business."

A year ago, RIM wasn't smart (or desperate) enough to do that. It was trying to negotiate deals with AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S. and Rogers in Canada. But talks fell apart over whether payment-card information would be stored in the phone's SIM card, where the carriers and banks would control it, or in a secure chip in the phone itself, where RIM could call the shots.

Now RIM has finally agreed to let Rogers and CIBC have control of NFC payments. If it can close similar deals with U.S. carriers, there will suddenly be lots of BlackBerry phones that can mimic contactless payment cards. (Putting a SIM card into lots of existing phones is trivial compared to selling lots of new NFC-enabled phones.)

Then all RIM has to do is to get its young, social-obsessed BlackBerry users to start an NFC-using fad. Which sounds pretty unlikely—until you realize that RIM managed to organize a mystery flash mob in front of an Apple Store in Sydney, Australia, last month. A black-clad crowd waved signs and chanted "Wake up!" before disappearing without explanation. RIM waited a week before owning up to the publicity stunt.

Dumb? Sure. Incoherent? You bet. The type of thing that sounds like it could inspire a fad of flash mobs waving signs and chanting meaningless slogans outside stores? Actually, yes.

If RIM can create an NFC fad, of course, it will just be a fad. But it might be enough to prime the mobile-payments pump. That could be the best shot at making all that retailer effort to get Google Wallet and ISIS working worth the trouble.

And if that NFC fad just burns out? Then RIM gets buried anyway, and we can all declare NFC to be the Pet Rock of payments and move on.

Either that or go back to waiting for Apple.

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