Phones as wallets

28 Nov 2017

Life in Hong Kong is possible without an Octopus stored-value card, just less convenient. The Octopus was introduced in September 1997 and is based on Sony's FeLiCa card-reader technology. It was originally designed for use on Hong Kong's transportation networks, but quickly spread to retail outlets across the SAR.

Nowadays, you may see a Visa PayWave processor as well as the ubiquitous Octopus processor at retail outlets, but that's about it. Go to a supermarket in Macau and you'll see an array of payment-processors by the register. They include the Macau Pass card (introduced 1999, and much like the Octopus), but there's typically four to five options.

At Singapore's Changi Airport recently, I used one of those touch-kiosks to order some food, and the payment options looked like a miniature online casino: emblazoned with logos for Singaporean and international payment gateways.

Changi's like a miniature UN, and those passing through may have anything from Visa Paywave to China Union Pay in their wallet or purse. Of course cash is also welcome—hard currency is always in style. You may have made massive profits on cryptocurrency trading this year, but that kiosk didn't take Bitcoin.

China weighs in
With its massive monolingual userbase, China is a natural for unified communications via mobile. There may be some smartphone users in China who don't have Tencent's WeChat app, but I've never met one. And WeChat Pay, which is integral to WeChat and needs only an added bank card for functionality, knocked it out of the park with their digital “red envelope” feature, introduced in 2014.

According to Wikipedia, “Jack Ma considered the red envelope feature to be a 'Pearl Harbor moment' as it began to erode Alipay's historic dominance in the online payments industry in China, especially in peer-to-peer money transfer.” With other players like Baidu and Sina Weibo (and of course, Alipay) rolling out their own “red packet” payment options, the m-commerce market in China remains an intriguing ecosystem, albeit one that exists primarily among Putonghua speakers trading RMB.

The unbanked
M-commerce shines brightest in regions with a high percentage of “the unbanked”: people who have no banking account, let alone credit cards and flashy phone gizmos. And the most interesting of these efforts is M-Pesa.

M-Pesa is a grassroots currency. It germinated when researchers in a few African countries noticed that people were bartering mobile airtime, effectively treating it as a currency. M-Pesa is a branchless banking service launched by Vodafone in Kenya and Tanzania in 2007, says Wikipedia. It has since expanded to Afghanistan, South Africa, Egypt, India, Lesotho, Mozambique, Romania, and Albania.

“There are few more stunning success stories in the developing world than the explosion in the use of mobile phone money transfers,” wrote Murithi Mutiga in The New York Times in 2014. “The service has brought millions of people into the formal financial system, hobbled crime by substituting cash for PIN-secured virtual accounts, and created tens of thousands of jobs.”

Digital value
All these m-commerce schemes have their merits. They also have their drawbacks: some firms would love to add consumers' purchases & locations to the database of information they already scrape from the likes of Google, Facebook, and Instagram. Is it really anyone's business that I grabbed lunch at the airport in Singapore? And if so, WHOSE business it it?

Data privacy is a related topic, and must be part of the discussion. But unbanked rural dwellers need some way to transfer funds and get basic information on crop and commodity prices, because it's a relatively easy yet significant way to improve their quality of life. Here's where mobile communication and associated payment gateways make the best kind of difference.

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