The next time you take out your cell phone to make a phone call or send a text message, don't forget to check your bank account balance, pay your bills, or transfer money to your relatives in another state. These services and others are either already available or will become available by midyear now that financial companies are stepping up their mobile banking efforts.
Mobile banking is finally hitting the United States, which is lagging behind Europe and Asia where consumers can already do basic stuff on their cell phones like check their bank statements, as well as use their cell phones to make purchases in stores and at vending machines. There are three key waves coming from the banks, the credit card companies, and the cellular carriers that you should be aware of:
1. Mobile banking, which uses mobile devices for self-service functions. Several major banks, including Citibank, Wachovia, and Bank of America, have launched mobile applications that will allow customers to view their account balances, pay bills, transfer money, and even call customer service reps with one click -- all using a cell phone or smartphone.
2. Contactless payments, which enables cell phones to be used as payment devices instead of credit cards. As a separate effort, top credit card issuers MasterCard and Visa are paving the way for "contactless" payments, where cell phones serve as electronic wallets for purchases that can be made at CVS, McDonald's, and many other retailers. The phones use Near Field Communication, or NFC, a wireless technology for short-range communications between electronic devices.
3. Mobile marketing, which includes things such as loyalty programs, ads, and electronic coupons. MasterCard plans to offer rewards and special offers via text messages that customers can redeem when they visit stores, as an incentive for using its mobile services. Similarly, Visa will provide customers with electronic coupons on their cell phones as part of its payment-related services. Other companies have similar mobile marketing efforts under way.
"Banks are scrambling today to get customers to sign up for their services," says Richard Crone, of Crone Consulting. There were 236 million U.S. wireless subscribers at the end of 2006 and their data revenue totaled $4.8 billion in the fourth quarter, according to research firm IDC. With increased usage of data services, banks see this as the right time to introduce their mobile apps.
What the banks and the wireless carriers have yet to figure out is how to get consumers to actually use mobile banking and their cell phones as payment devices. Solving the challenge will require a lot of industry collaboration, and a lot of trial and error, of course.
Are you interested in mobile banking or using your cell phone as a wallet? Comments and opinions are welcome! For more information on the topic, look for my mobile banking story in Monday's issue of InformationWeek.