If your smartphone is near you while you’re reading this – and I’ll be surprised if it isn’t – pick it up and take a moment to consider all the things it is to you. It’s a calendar, little black book of contacts, games console, music centre, camera, miniature TV, communications portal, news delivery system, encyclopaedia, navigation system, memo pad… and of course, you can also make calls on it.
All this – and yet there’s still room to cram more functions in there. The one you can expect to hear a lot more of in the next couple of years is simple – it’s also going to become your wallet.
The idea of a mobile wallet is nothing new, of course, but until now the concept hasn’t taken off in South Africa – or, indeed, in most of the rest of the world outside East Africa, the home of MPESA. The main reason has been that too many people have tried to carve out areas of exclusive access: You can use my wallet, but only if you’re a customer of the bank I’ve partnered with, or only at the retailers in my limited stable.
Consumers have reacted to this the same way they react to everything that makes their lives more complicated instead of simpler: By quickly getting bored and moving on to something else.
In the past few months, however, something has shifted. As the walls have begun to break down, mobile banking has exploded – there are 10 million South Africans actively using it. The market is not among the smartphone users, but among those who have extremely limited access to conventional banking services: They’re using USSD technology on the most basic cellphones to check statements and balances and buy airtime.
Increasingly, they’re also using services like MTN Mobile Money – currently growing at somewhere in the region of 5 000 users a day – to transfer money and make payments.
Two trends are going to drive ever-faster evolution of mobile transactions and payments in the near future: Convergence and interoperability. .
By convergence, I mean the way all sorts of different money-related services come together on the mobile phone: Payments, information, vouchers, tickets, loyalty points and more. By interoperability, I mean how nicely all these services play with each other.
Let’s take an example. Currently there are a few companies offering things like sports and music news on mobi sites. What if it was also possible, on your favourite soccer or rugby site, to buy tickets to the next game that then gets sent directly to your phone for scanning at the gate? Throw in a discount voucher for team branded clothing, also on the phone, that can be redeemed at any sports shop, and you have an offer few can resist.
A lot needs to happen behind the scenes to make all this possible, of course: The news site needs to talk to the ticket sales company, both need to talk to the banks and the stadium operators need to agree to accept mobile tickets.
The technology to do all this already exists – it’s getting the people to agree that’s the hard part. But all the indications are that the big players have now realised that trying to own the customer exclusively is self-defeating. The future belongs to those who are willing to tear down the walls.
Bevan Ducasse is CEO of wiGroup.