200 individuals were the first to receive credit cards issued by Diners Club in 1950, the brainchild of Frank McNamara. It was the start of a completely new era in personal credit and payments. American Express entered the credit business with its own card in 1958, and within five years had issued more than a million cards.
Today there are more than 1.6 billion credit cards in circulation, and the US credit cards industry generates $2.8 billion dollars a year in revenue. One in 12 households in London (or 8 per cent) have used credit cards to pay their mortgage or rent in the last 12 months and outstanding credit card balances stood at £63.5 billion in November 2009. By 2013, China's consumer credit market--encompassing credit cards, mortgages, and other personal loans--will account for 14 percent of profits in the banking sector.
Growth in Contactless Technologies
In recent times we've seen the move to NFC or Near-Field Contactless credit cards. It is estimated that NFC enabled credit cards will reach the tipping point in 2011, with a total of 30 million British contactless bank cards alone being issued by then. The ease of use of an NFC-enabled card is obvious, no swiping, no inserting. Steve Perry from Visa Europe said that the rising popularity of contactless technology brings the promise of a cashless society where there is no longer any need for people to carry notes and coins around with them.
"Contactless is as revolutionary as the shift to internet payments was five years ago. It will mean having no notes and coins -- it will certainly mean having no coins. It will move us almost to a cashless society." - Steve Perry, Visa Europe
But as the modality shifts toward NFC, the reality is that the physical card itself does not represent a competitive advantage or differentiation for banks or issuers, not that it does today. Once the move to NFC-enabled POS terminals is ubiquitous, it's probably easier just to carry your phone to make payments than a gaggle of credit and debit cards. That's not going to happen overnight though right? Cards as a product are still too strong to be replaced by mobile quickly, so we have plenty of time right?
It will happen quick...
WRONG. We know that Apple is working on an NFC-enabled phone, and given their recent hires in the space, it is assumed that the iPhone 5 will be the platform for this change. So how will Apple's NFC-enabled iPhone 5 work? We know a few things about the likely capability of the phone based on the patents issued by Apple. Firstly, the payment application will be a core app integrated into the phone, there will be a biometric strip (presumably enabling fingerprint authentication) and the phone will ostensibly work just like an EMV-chip credit card.
The question you are probably asking is, how will the payment mechanism work? Here's where it is largely speculation because Apple is being extremely tight lipped. We know that the primary payment app will work as an interface to your bank or credit card company as you need it to. However, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that Apple could use its current iTunes store platform to provide stored value for an effective debit card mechanism. If Apple was to use this mechanism as the underlying currency or stored value behind their core 'debit card' equivalent payment capability, they would effectively become a bank overnight, and one with perhaps an even stronger differentiation than any other debit card on the market today. Other handset manufacturers and mobile platform providers would be sure to follow as Apple's payment capability quickly becomes ubiquitous. That is, if the payment networks talk to Apple's iTunes store...
Competing with Apple, Google and Microsoft Mobile
So how will banks compete in such an environment? Well banks can't issue their own mobile phones like Apple or Google's partners can, and plastic cards and checks look downright archaic in comparison to such a payment paradigm. The only choice of Card issuers and banks would be to embrace the new technology and scramble to partner with the handset manufacturers and mobile OS owners. Visa has already deployed their Visa Paywave solution on the iPhone, but currently you need a cradle or sleeve that the iPhone sits in to do the sexy NFC bit, that simply won't be necessary on the new device.
So the question for banks in this new environment would be how do we now issue cards to customers? Do they have to come into the branch for us to configure their phone? Given how easy it is to upload iTunes credit, this would be a huge competitive disadvantage, so the compliance procedures applied to the current physical process of card issuance become a millstone around the bank's neck and result in rapid disintermediation. Within the space of 3-5 years, banks no longer have a credit card business. Sure, they might eke out a small business settling payments between Apple's iTunes store and the bank, but compared with the size of the card business today this would be miniscule.
Challenges Ahead for Banks
What about if a customer could download a new "credit card" from the iTunes' App store, or from Google's Marketplace? Well how would you qualify for the card as a customer, are there different card apps for each bank, what is the onboarding and risk assessment process?
Don't be tempted to think that the protection of existing payments networks or a bank license will protect your existing business from such innovation. If Apple does launch their NFC phone and announces collaboration through Visa and Mastercard's payment network, do you honestly think with millions of iPhone 5's going out the door that the regulator is going to call a halt to payments from a phone?
Seriously, if you are a bank, it's likely that in just 8-9 months you'll be faced with competition from non-banks who can do the whole NFC-enabled phone payments thing much faster, easier and more compelling than you ever could by issuing a plastic debit or credit card. And guess what?
If you're the CEO of a bank, you probably don't even have someone appointed to work on mobile credit card onboarding yet, so what's the likelihood you'll be ready to compete?
Let's try plan B - let's go to the regulators and see if we can stop mobile phone payments as a mechanism shall we?