Evidence surfacing that mobile payments catching on in the U.S.

paymentPerhaps mobile payments are really poised to take off in the U.S. after some false starts the past couple years. According to market research firm iSuppli, the mobile payments market will experience “explosive growth” with worldwide shipments of mobile phones expected to reach 220.1 million units in 2014 (compared to 52.6 million in 2010) for units with built-in near field communications (NFC) capability.

Perhaps some evidence of this “explosion” is starting to emerge. Today, Starbucks announced what it claims is the country’s largest mobile payment program. All of its U.S. company-operated stores will allow BlackBerry and Apple iOS users access to the Starbucks Card Mobile App, in which money is loaded onto the app with any major credit card or PayPal. Users then hold their phones in front of a scanner on the countertop, and scan an on-screen barcode to purchase.

What’s interesting is that Starbucks is bucking the NFC hype and using 2-D bar codes instead. Rather than wait for mobile handset operators to adopt hardware-based NFC capabilities into their phones, Starbucks is pursuing a software-based approach (built by mFoundry) to foster broad-scale implementation at a faster rate.

In the long run, experts say the blocky two-dimensional bar code-like image will prove less flexible than NFC chips, but most agree it can be a good springboard for companies wanting to gain traction as NFC picks up momentum.

That traction will be driven, most likely, by Google and Nokia, whose NFC-enabled phones will drive more than $22 billion in payment transactions by 2015 (according to a November report by Aite Group).

Additionally, communications service providers, financial institutions and retailers all seem to be ready to push ahead to allow consumers to make payments with mobile devices.

AT&T Mobility, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile are working on Isis, a national network for NFC. And banks like Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, US Bancorp and Bank of America are working with companies like Visa and Mastercard to insert microSD cards into smartphones for NFC enablement.

As this work continues, retailers will do more to push mobile payments. Just yesterday, McDonald’s announced the UK’s biggest roll-out of tap-and-go purchasing of its products. And earlier this month Wells Fargo launched an employee program to get people using phones rather than plastic to pay at restaurants and retailers.

Though  not mainstream by any means, there is enough energy around mobile payments in the U.S. already in 2011 that this may be the year you can “leave home without it” in terms of your wallets.

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