Hands On: ISIS tap-and-pay phone tech isn't worth the hassle

ISIS phone

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Let’s face it: there’s a bit of a thrill in simply pulling out your phone, tapping it against a reader, and walking away with a double cheeseburger. If only signing up for ISIS, the carriers’ answer to Google Wallet, was that easy.

Two years ago, I was one of the first to try out Google Wallet. I loved it. Paying with a tap of your phone didn’t just seem like a page out of the future, it was a convenient way to avoid the admittedly miniscule hassle of digging out a wallet in taxicabs and at the occasional fast-food joint.

But Google Wallet never really took off. Why? Several reasons.

  • First, contactless chip-and-PIN credit schemes were never adopted by American retailers, despite becoming quite common in the U.K. and elsewhere.
  • Second, phones equipped with the requisite Near Field Communications (NFC) technology took off slowly.
  • And finally, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless—the architects of the ISIS technology—blocked Google Wallet from their phones. Only Google’s Nexus phones survived. Meanwhile, ISIS remained “in testing” in Austin and Salt Lake City for years.

ISIS has issues similar to Google Wallet's, though. First, ISIS supports only a small subset of credit cards. And though it’s owned by the major carriers, you can’t actually charge a purchase to your phone bill. And it doesn’t work on iOS. So ISIS, in its current form, is half a solution to a problem many really don’t have.

Both ISIS and Wallet work on the same principle: you download a dedicated app from the Google Play Store, connect your e-wallet to your bank account or credit card, and then tap to pay at a number of retailers equipped with either the MasterCard PayPass or Visa PayWave terminals. (MasterCard maintains a list of PayPass locations, and there’s an Android app, too. ISIS maintains a separate list.)

ISIS options
The ISIS app options.

To use ISIS, you’ll need a compatible phone from one of the three carriers. One caveat: while I do not own a phone that’s supported by ISIS, I do own one that should be compatible with ISIS: the NFC-equipped Galaxy Note 3. But it’s the setup, not actually paying with the phone, that’s the hassle.

Downloading the app was simple enough, although the setup process oddly requires you to turn off Wi-Fi after the installation process completes—to authenticate yourself with the carrier, presumably.

The ISIS app is clean and attractive, with a brief overlay that directs you to add payment options plus loyalty cards at major retailers. You’ll need to select a 4-digit PIN code that unlocks the wallet —pretty standard fare.

Troublesome payment options

Unfortunately, adding the payment card is where ISIS trips up. For now, you only have three ways to pay: a Citi card, an American Express card, or American Express Serve, a prepaid card that you can load from a variety of different sources.

If you’d like to use a Visa or a Discover card, for example, or pull from your bank account, you’ll need to sign up for a Serve card from within the app. (An ISIS spokesman says that more types of cards will be supported later.)

To be fair, Google Wallet originally shipped with an electronic version of a prepaid Google Wallet debit card that needed to be loaded via a credit card or debit card. Serve is much the same. But I recall the Wallet process as extremely simple, while the Serve signup reminds me of applying for a credit card.

Serve asks for your birthday and Social Security number, as well as your address and other information. A somewhat confusing fee page implies that you’ll pay $2.95 per purchase. (American Express did clarify that there are no per-purchase or monthly fees for using the Serve card, provided you apply via ISIS).

American Express Serve feesAmerican Express
No, you don’t have to pay a couple of bucks for every retail purchase.

And after all that, Serve failed to complete the registration process, throwing an error message that cited technical difficulties.

Ideally, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon should have my payment information on file, allowing me to either type in my billing password or authenticate via my phone, taking care of the heavy lifting themselves.

As it is, I left the (failed) ISIS registration process with one simple question: “Why am I going through all this hassle just to avoid taking my wallet out of my pocket?”

Well, that’s due to offers like a free Jamba Juice and three free Coca-Colas, perks for those who use the card. ISIS promises similar offers. But ISIS asks you for your ZIP code to identify relevant offers around you—wouldn’t it be nice if your smartphone just knew where you were?

I’ve used Google Wallet, owned a chip-and-PIN card, and currently use wireless tokens to pay for my BART ticket and bridge tolls. I’m wholly in favor of a future where one heavily secured (and easily revoked) token starts my car, opens my home, and pays for my movie ticket. However, ISIS isn’t at that level of convenience.

Actually, I’d simply prefer that T-Mobile permit me to use Google Wallet on my phone than sign up for another service.

This story, "Hands On: ISIS tap-and-pay phone tech isn't worth the hassle" was originally published by TechHive.

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