Do They Have The Staying Power

Just before the Holidays, I had an opportunity to attend a presentation on Isis, the mobile payments venture backed by AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile.  The presenter was Jim Stapleton, Isis’ Chief Sales Officer.

Jim gave a very witty and engaging talk on the evolution of mobile, a primer on mobile payments and a broad explanation of Isis.  I, however, left Jim’s presentation with two questions that have been nagging me ever sense: 1) Does Isis’ backers have the fortitude to see this through? 2) What possessed Jim, a Harvard grad with an apparently successful AT&T career, to take on such a risky assignment?  Let’s take a moment to consider each.

Does Isis’ backers have the fortitude to see this through? 

Frankly, I’m absolutely floored that three conservative companies like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile would even launch this initiative.  Not because it’s an exercise in folly, but because it’s such a bold, risky step that could take years to develop and could potentially embarrass all involved if it fails.

Most mega-companies don’t typically “put themselves out there” to do something of this magnitude.  Most large companies sit quietly on the sidelines and wait for the pioneers to take the “arrows in the back” before they dip their toes in the water.

Will they see it through?  This is the billion-dollar question.  These days, most large companies do not typically show much patience for things that consume cash on a speculative or extended basis.  Isis, although most certainly a miniscule financial commitment compared to the combined resources of its respective partners, is something that is definitely speculative and could potentially take years to develop.

Why years? In its existing incarnation, Isis’ success depends on a large installed-base of consumers carrying NFC-enabled smartphones.  It will likely take, even under the best circumstances, at least three years and a lot of consumer education before there is enough NFC-enabled consumers to make even a modest impact on Isis’ bottom line – this of course assumes that a majority of these NFC-enabled consumers will adopt Isis in the first place.

Until this critical mass of NFC-equipped, Isis-toting consumers exists, there will be no end to the neigh-sayers who will enthusiastically stand in line to point out why Isis “does not work”.  Worse yet, the longer it takes to reach critical mass, the more vocal these neigh-sayers will likely become.  Unfortunately for Isis, many of these “boo-birds” will likely come from within the walls of its own partners.

These corporate antibodies – those individuals that absolutely thrive on attacking anything new — could potentially become a very vocal lot if progress is “perceived” to be too slow.  Unfortunately, a growing chorus of internal discontent could potentially make it very difficult for the partners to remain steadfast in their long-term commitment to the project.

So the questions remain: Will Isis and its partners be able to withstand the internal and external attacks for possibly years on end? Will Isis and its partners have the patience to endure the protracted cash drain that will occur as they await a critical mass of NFC-enable consumers to adopt the service?  Only time will tell. 

What would possess Jim Stapleton, a Harvard grad and AT&T career veteran, to take on such an apparently risky assignment?

It is obvious that only Jim can answer this question, but having insight into the factors that drove someone with Jim’s pedigree to join Isis could certainly provide some perspective into Isis’ prospects for success.

Perhaps Jim’s decision to join Isis is indicative of his confidence in the commitment of its partners.  Perhaps it’s indicative of his confidence in the Isis solution-set. Perhaps he’s just confident that he has a risk-limiting safety net.

Whatever the reason(s), I don’t believe that anyone with Jim’s credentials would want to be forever associated with a very public flop. He must, therefore, feel very confident that Isis will succeed. But one has to wonder: Is this a rational confidence or just wishful thinking?

Jim strikes me as a straight-up guy so I’m going to invite him to discuss this with me.  Should he agree to meet, I’ll share Jim’s thoughts – to the degree he approves — in a subsequent blog post.

Final Thoughts:

Does it matter whether Isis succeeds or not? You bet it does.

Isis is visibly dependent on NFC. Should Isis fail, this would create a negative aura around the technology that could severely hurt the perception of NFC and impact its prospects for success beyond payments. This would be devastating to NFC’s emerging role as an enabler of the “Holistic Mobile Experience”.

What is the Holistic Mobile Experience? By attaching NFC tags to traditional customer engagement media such as print signage, posters, brochures, promotional products, mailers, etc., marketers can create unique digital content experiences that can be initiated with just a tap of a consumer’s NFC-equipped smartphone.  By further connecting NFC tags with physical objects such as retail products and physical locations, marketers can extend those content experiences to almost everything in the consumer’s world.

When coupled with comprehensive content management capabilities residing within a backend system, NFC tags can deliver customer engagement experiences that can be personalized based upon factors such as time, date, temperature, location, inventory levels, product pricing, etc.  All of the interactions can be tracked, monitored and influenced in real-time.

The goal of the Holistic Mobile Experience is to enable merchants to better influence the consumer’s habits before, during and after the shopping experience.  The objective is to offer the consumer and the merchant the benefits of an online shopping experience but within the real world.

So should Isis persevere?  Yes, but they probably want to take a close look at their business model.

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4 Responses to “Do They Have The Staying Power”

  1. Didier Geiben (Paris) Reply April 5, 2013 at 8:08 am

    No value for the consumers and merchants, Nobody ready to pay. The Telco are dreaming about banks willingness to climb is such train and think they could make money by renting the SIM space. Isis reproduces an old card centric model with too many indians. It is not innovative at the end.
    So Isis shareholders may close it before year end.
    I am not saying NFC mobile payment will never work. But not in the short-middle term with open loop models

  2. Now 2 years after you can come back to our previous remarks. Banks have left the boat, The SIM centric model is almost dead and still nothing happening. And Apple Pay has just created the buzz for EMV in the States but NFC payments still will have to wait for many years.
    So what does it mean for ISIS : US Telcos can are patient and very rich !

    • Welcome back. There has been a lot happening in the past two years. The action has been and continues to be in closed-loop, branded apps. The biggest story from the Apple Pay announcement is not the proximity-based NFC payments; it’s the one-touch, in-app payment model that has the real future. Proximity-based payments, NFC or otherwise, is a short term solution that will not have time to gain significant momentum before it is up-ended by robust omni-channel apps. Isis (aka Softcard) will continue to ride their current horse until their carrier bosses shut off the money spigot. No open loop solution can create the same degree of consumer value as a closed-loop solution.

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