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How Apple Pay stacks up against the retailers’ competing payment system

Apple CEO Tim Cook discusses the new Apple Pay product during an event at Apple headquarters on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 in Cupertino, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Tim Cook and friends.
  • Jean-Louis Gassée
By Jean-Louis Gassée

Editor, Monday Note

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

It’s still too early to tell if Apple Pay will square the circle and emerge as a payment system that’s more secure, more convenient, and is widely accepted. MCX, a competing solution that faces more challenges than Apple Pay, helps shed light on the problem.

Apple Pay was announced on September 9 with the new iPhone 6, and rolled out on October 20.

Where it works, it works well. The roster of banks and merchants that accept Apple’s new payment system is impressive, with big names such as Visa, American Express, Bank of America, Macy’s, Walgreens, and Whole Foods.

But it doesn’t work everywhere.

At launch, Apple Pay covered just a corner of the territory blanketed by today’s debit and credit cards. Then we had a real surprise. Within 24 hours of the roll-out, a handful of merchants, notably CVS, Rite-Aid, Target, and Wal-Mart, pulled the plug on Apple Pay. Apparently, these retailers suddenly remembered they had signed an exclusive agreement with Merchant Customer Exchange (MCX), a consortium of merchants that’s developing a competing payment system and mobile app called CurrentC. How a company as well-managed as CVS could have “forgotten” about its contract with MCX, and what the threatened consequences were for this lapse of memory aren’t known…yet.

We could wade through the professions of good faith and sworn allegiance (“We are committed to offering convenient, reliable, and secure payment methods that meet the needs of our customers,” says Rite Aid PR flack Ashley Flower), but perhaps we’re better off just listing MCX’s Friends and Foes.

Let’s start with the Foes: MCX hates credit cards. As Ron Shevlin of Snarketing 2.0 reports, the hatred isn’t even veiled:

“At last year’s BAI Retail Delivery conference…I asked Mr. Scott [Lee Scott, former Wal-Mart CEO] why, in the face of so many failed consortia before it, would MCX succeed? He said: ‘I don’t know that it will, and I don’t care. As long as Visa suffers.’”

This open animosity is understandable. When we look at Wal-Mart’s latest financials, we see that the company’s net income is 3.1% of sales. A typical Visa transaction costs them 1.51% of the amount that was charged. (See Credit Card Processing Fees & Rates for mind-numbing esoterica.)

For Wal-Mart and other big merchants, this 1.51% “donation” cuts too close to the bone, which is why they banded together to form the MCX consortium.

So we know who MCX’s Foes are…but does it have any Friends?

Not really. Counting the MCX merchants themselves as Friends is a bit of a circular argument—no sin there, it’s business—but it doesn’t build a compelling case for the platform.

What about consumers?

On paper, the MCX idea is simple: You download the CurrentC app onto your mobile phone and connect it to a bank account (ABA routing and account number.) When it comes time to pay for a purchase, CurrentC displays a QR code that you present to the cashier. The code is scanned, there’s a bit of network chatter, and money is pumped directly out of your bank account.

Set-up details are still a bit sketchy. For example, the CurrentC trial run required the customer’s social security and driver’s license numbers in addition to the bank info. MCX says it doesn’t “expect” to have these additional requirements when CurrentC launches in early 2015, but I’m not sure that it matters. The requirement that the customer supply full banking details and then watch as money is siphoned off without delay is essentially no different from a debit card—but with a middle man inserted into the process. And while debit card use surpassed credit cards as far back as 2007, US shoppers are loathe to leave the warm embrace of their credits cards when it comes to big ticket purchases (average debit card charge in 2012: $37; credit card: $97; see here for yet more esoterica.)

What does MCX and CurrentC offer that would entice consumers to abandon their credit and debit cards and give merchants direct access to their bank accounts? The consortium can’t offer much in the way of financial incentives, not when the whole point is to remedy Visa’s 1.51% processing fee.

Now let’s look at Apple Pay; first, consumers.

Apple has recognized the strong bond between consumers and their credit cards: The average wallet contains 3.7 cards, with a balance of $7.3K outstanding. Apple Pay doesn’t replace credit cards so much as it makes the relationship more secure and convenient.

Set up is surprisingly error-free—and I’m always expecting bugs (more on that in a future note). The credit card that’s connected to your iTunes account is used by default, all you have to do is launch Passbook and re-enter the CVV number on the back. If you want to use a different credit card account, you take a picture of the card and Passbook verifies it with the issuer. Debit cards also work, although you have to call the bank…as in an actual telephone call. In my case, the bank had a dedicated 877 number. Less than 30 seconds later a confirmation appeared on my device.

Paying is simple: Gently tap the phone on a compatible, NFC-enabled point-of-sale terminal and place a registered finger on the TouchID button; the phone logs the transaction in Passbook and then vibrates pleasantly to confirm.

On the security side, Apple Pay doesn’t store your credit card number, neither on your phone nor on Apple’s servers. Instead, the card is represented by an encrypted token; the most you can ever see are the last four digits of the card—even on an unlocked phone, even when you’re deleting a card from your Passbook.

Simplifying a bit (or a lot), during a transaction this encrypted token is sent through the NFC terminal back to your bank where it’s decrypted. Not even the merchant can see the card.

We can also count the banks and credit card companies as Friends of Apple Pay. For them, nothing much changes. A small fee goes to Apple (0.15%, $1 for every $700). Apple Pay isn’t meant to make money in itself, its goal is to make iDevices more pleasant, more secure.

Banks also like the potential for cutting down on fraud. In 2013, payment card fraud was pegged at $14 billion globally with half of that in the US. How deeply Apple Pay will cut into this number isn’t known, but the breadth and warmth of Apple Pay adoption by financial institutions speaks for their expectations. Wells Fargo, for example, put up a large billboard over the 101 freeway and promoted the service on social media:

What about merchants? This is a mixed bag; some seem to be fully on board, although, as ever, we mustn’t judge by what they say for the flackery on the left is just as disingenuous as the flackery on the right. Regard the declaration from pro-Apple Pay Walgreens: “Incorporating the latest mobile technology into our business is another way we are offering ultimate convenience for our customers.” Sound familiar?

Others, such as Wal-Mart are resolute Foes. Of the fence sitters, time will tell if they’ll jump into the Apple Pay camp or desert it. It’s still very early.

Questions remain regarding “loyalty” programs, a cynical word if there ever was one when considering the roach motels of frequent flyer miles. A quick look at in-app payments provides a possible answer.

One such example, no surprise, is Apple’s own App Store app where you can pay with Apple Pay after scanning an accessory’s bar code. The app triggers a confirmation email that shows that the merchant, Apple, is aware of the transaction. Other merchants can, and will, build their own apps, but there’s still the question of how a loyalty program will work for point-of-sale transactions where merchants can’t see your data.

In a clumsily worded comparison, MCX CEO Dekkers Davidson tries to imply that his company’s exclusivity requirement is much like AT&T’s arrangement with Apple in the early days of the iPhone, an arrangement that wasn’t permanent and that worked out well for both parties. In the meantime, one can visualize Apple engaging in an encircling action, patiently adding partners and features quarter after quarter.

We’ll know soon if this battle is won before it’s even fought.

You can read more of Monday Note’s coverage of technology and media here.

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