When it comes to mobile payments, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) has failed to capitalize on its huge Android user base. Part of the problem has been the wireless carriers in the U.S., which started their own mobile payments company, Softcard (formerly Isis), and blocked Google's access to the near-field communication chip that facilitates mobile payments. Now, Google is reportedly in talks to acquire that company for less than $100 million.
But gaining access to Softcard's patents and cooperation from wireless carriers wouldn't suddenly make Google Wallet -- Google's payments platform -- an Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) Pay competitor. Apple has significant technology and partnerships in place already that make it successful.
Google will need to work closely with banks and phone manufacturers to take on Apple in the growing mobile payments market. Even then, it might not make sense for Google to pursue this opportunity.
Strengthening partnerships with carriers
The biggest benefit for Google from the purchase of Softcard would be an improved relationship with carriers. Google already has profit-sharing agreements with wireless carriers for mobile search advertising and Play Store sales.
Part of any agreement to buy Softcard could involve extending that revenue-sharing agreement. That could encourage carriers to promote Android phones and Google Wallet in stores. At the very least, it would open the door for Google to gain access to the secure element NFC chip, which Softcard previously blocked.
Apple overcame Softcard for two reasons. First, it is both the software and hardware manufacturer, which enables it to make services that work seamlessly with hardware. Second, Apple commands over 40% of the smartphone market in the U.S., which means carriers risked losing a huge chunk of sales if they tried to block Apple Pay.
Google will need to work more closely with smartphone OEMs to improve adoption of Google Wallet and make it a seamless experience like Apple Pay. Improving hardware access by lifting restrictions from carriers would be just the start.
Not just about the technology
Softcard already has notable partnerships in place with American Express and Wells Fargo. But Google must do more to overcome concerns from banks and credit card issuers that it is just interested in gathering data on what people bought. Those privacy concerns are one of the reasons banks have hesitated to jump on board Google Wallet.
Of course, that is part of Google's plans to actually make money from mobile payments. It wants to feed back purchase data into its digital advertising business. Conversely, Apple has no designs on users' data. Instead, it wants to make Apple Pay as secure as possible in order to increase adoption of its smartphones and upcoming smart watch.
Unless Google has plans to make Google Wallet a stand-alone profit-generating business, it would be wasting money investing in Softcard's assets. Banks are highly unlikely to get on board with a company that is interested in gleaning purchase data.
At the same time, it doesn't make sense for Google to play middleman in mobile payments if it is unable to use purchase data. Apple Pay isn't a big revenue generator for Apple, and it's probably not going to move the needle as a stand-alone service. Instead, it helps sell Apple hardware. That doesn't fit into Google's business model, since it licenses Android for free and makes money on advertising.
Solving problems in mobile payments
Apple Pay works to solve problems in mobile payments -- specifically security and ease of use. Google Wallet currently doesn't solve any problems. Buying Softcard purchase could make the payment system easier to use if Google updates Android and its APIs to take advantage of the system and embed the payments platform deeper in the OS.
That alone wouldn't increase adoption, however, unless Google could work out partnerships with banks to support their credit cards. It hasn't been able to do so in the last three and a half years, though, and a Softcard purchase would not change anything in Google's mobile payments plans.
While Softcard wouldn't make a big impact on Google's cash balance of over $60 billion, it also wouldn't move the needle on Google's mobile payments platform. Any additional investments need to move Google closer to more partnerships with banks or to a mobile payments business that can sustain itself without feeding purchase data back to the mother ship.