Mobile phone payment providers may see the coming launch of next-generation phones in China as a market-expanding opportunity, but obstacles still mean mobile payments are not guaranteed to take off.
Many online payment providers in China have started offering mobile payments in competition with rising mobile-only payment providers. But while the industry's potential is giant in a country with over 640 million mobile subscribers, for now it faces checkered availability of matching pay platforms and phones to support them.
Providers must also reach separate agreements with banks, merchants and mobile carriers in each of China's segmented provinces to launch mobile payments in them. The ominous task has hamstrung growth, said Boaz Rottenberg, an analyst at Beijing-based Maverick China Research.
"People have been talking about mobile payment for quite some time now, but it still hasn't taken off," Rottenberg said. "Market conditions are just not right."
That hasn't stopped Union Mobile Pay (UMPay), China's biggest mobile payment provider, from diving into the market. As a joint venture between China UnionPay, an inter-bank credit card organization, and China Mobile, the world's biggest mobile carrier, UMPay says its main mobile payment service has gained over 40 million registered users since the firm launched five years ago.
Few of those accounts are probably active. Still, UMPay hopes China's launch of 3G mobile services later this year might create new opportunities for growth, a marketing staff member at the firm said.
UMPay offers standard mobile payment options that include initiation by text message or through a downloaded client that connects to the payment provider using WAP (Wireless Application Protocol).
Some Chinese use mobile payment to refill pre-paid phone balances by sending the charge directly to their mobile account. The punch of a few buttons saves the trouble of going out to buy a physical charge card. Buying digital items such as online game accounts or music is also popular, and users can buy physical goods at offline vendors who have partnered with a payment provider.
99Bill, a leading provider of broader online payments, started offering a WAP-based mobile option in 2006. But while such payments will grow, 99Bill thinks the bigger opportunity lies in offering mobile as just one of many payment options, said Oliver Kwan, CEO of the company.
Kwan said mobile payments won't just be a stand-alone product. "That's not what the consumer wants," he said.
99Bill also offers payments by landline or e-mail for its 33 million registered users in areas of China with highly diverse infrastructure levels. The firm is expanding value-added services like bill payments and other services for businesses that organize their financial information for import into ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, Kwan said.
"We want to enable all the forms of payments," he said.
Alipay, owned by e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, announced a deal last week that will let China Mobile users in coastal Zhejiang province make mobile payments for items like new handsets or text message news updates, an Alibaba spokeswoman said.
Users may eventually be able to make mobile payments for 3G-related services through Alipay, she said. Alipay, China's dominant online payment provider, has similar deals with China Telecom, another carrier.
China's three big mobile carriers will all launch 3G networks in China this year, creating mobile broadband options likely to boost the number of people who use their phones to access online services.
But to spread mobile payments, providers will still need to snag deals with mobile carriers who have not prioritized offering the service in the past, said Rottenberg, the analyst.
"I don't see anything major happening in the short term," he said.