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Isis to Change Wallet Design; Hires New Wallet App Developer

The Isis mobile operator joint venture plans to introduce a new design for its mobile wallet and is changing the supplier of its device software, NFC Times has learned.

Isis, which is conducting a two-city trial in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Austin, Texas, plans to introduce the redesigned user interface for consumers by the third quarter. The redesign is not timed to coincide with an expected expansion this year by Isis to additional U.S. cities for its mobile-commerce services, sources told NFC Times.

Isis has hired app developer Mutual Mobile, an Austin-based startup, to develop the next version of the wallet, which will run on NFC-enabled handsets that Isis telcos Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility and T-Mobile USA sell, sources said.

Mutual Mobile is replacing C-SAM on the device software side. Chicago-based C-SAM, which developed the first version of the wallet, still in use, will continue to run the Isis wallet server. The server mainly keeps track of applications users download and the handsets they load them to, in case the phone is lost or stolen, said sources. It might also be used if the user's wallet PIN needs to be reset.

The new wallet version, known as Isis Mobile Wallet 2.0, aims for a smoother performance, quicker response times and sleeker and cleaner design, sources said.

The new wallet app will be developed mainly for Android and iOS devices, the latter for use with an NFC-enabled attachment for the iPhone that is due out soon.

Neither Isis nor C-SAM would confirm any changes in their business relationship.

“We have nothing to announce at this time,” an Isis spokesperson told NFC Times. “Like any company, we are always looking for ways to deliver a better experience to our customers.”

The spokesperson later added: “We continue to have a relationship with C-SAM. We don't discuss the details of our arrangements with our vendors or partners.”

C-SAM, which announced its licensing deal with Isis for its wallet platform in August of 2011, said through a spokeswoman that the supplier “has worked with Isis and continues to work with Isis moving forward.”

The continued working relationship between Isis and C-SAM is believed to be for use of the C-SAM wallet server only and not the client or device software. But neither Isis nor C-SAM would confirm this.

Isis is believed to have spent heavily on the C-SAM platform, including a lengthy development period. The user interface was developed to Isis’ own specifications.

It would be expensive to change the wallet server, which has connections with the various mobile operators and service providers.

Although there have been some performance problems with the Isis wallet and difficulties in implementing the platform, that might not be the reason Isis is switching suppliers, said sources. It might be down to commercial issues or just the desire by Isis to introduce a new look and feel for users.

“C-SAM's theme is always technology focused,” a source close to C-SAM told NFC Times. ”The task of the user app is to delight the user. What Isis has done is switched over to a very user-focused (developer). They're known for making very cool, very sexy user interfaces.”

Isis has so far declined to release figures on use of its mobile wallet, launched nearly four months ago in the two cities. Most observers agree that an attractive and smooth user interface is vital for consumers to take to the wallet.

“At this stage, what Isis needs is very good feedback from the field; happy customers,” said one industry observer. “Otherwise, Isis will never fly.”

Performance Issues
There have been some issues with the C-SAM-based wallet, such as the user interface freezing when users try to enter their Isis wallet PIN codes, requiring them to relaunch the application. There have also been problems from time to time with the wallet failing to connect to the secure element in the phones, in this case, the Isis NFC SIMs.

The latter problem is not uncommon with NFC-enabled wallets, say sources. But they told NFC Times the implementation of the C-SAM platform was one cause–there were several others–for the delays in Isis launching its two-city pilot.

While it continues to provide the Isis wallet server, the loss of the device software part of the Isis project would be a blow to C-SAM, which has used Isis as a reference project in its PR and marketing material.

C-SAM, which was founded in 1998 and recently received an infusion from MasterCard Worldwide, said it has 25 wallet deployments globally.

Many are in India and most do not involve NFC applications. But they include the NFC wallet launched by Singaporean operator StarHub last summer in Singapore and a white label wallet for MasterCard targeting banks and other service providers in Asia Pacific. Discover Financial Services in the U.S. also works with C-SAM’s wallet software or has in the past, though not necessarily for NFC.

The MCX consortium, made up of such major U.S. merchants as Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy, has also tried out C-SAM’s wallet software internally for its planned mobile wallet, NFC Times has reported. But the group is not believed to have hired C-SAM. 

Widget System
C-SAM mainly uses a widget-based architecture for its wallet. The wallet software uses Java and, therefore, can support a variety of platforms, including Android, iOS, BlackBerry, even feature phones. Widgets, or mini-applications, run inside the wallet and provide the wallet services consumers see for their banks and other service providers.

C-SAM also licensed a software development kit for the wallet to Isis, so Isis could build widgets for service providers, or the service providers could develop them themselves.

The widget architecture means Isis doesn’t have to have a wallet app for each mobile platform, such as Android, iOS, BlackBerry and Windows Phone or to worry about differences between the Android implementations from different phone makers. With Java, the C-SAM wallet and the widgets could be built once and deployed over many platforms.

But the Isis telcos don’t sell NFC devices with a range of platforms. They mainly sell Android NFC phones and will introduce the case for the iPhone, putting payment applications on microSD cards.

And when it uses Java, the C-SAM wallet platform would generally run more slowly when compared with a wallet app that runs natively in Android or other smartphone operating systems, since Java is an interpreted language.

Widgets also don’t provide the functionality of a full app.

C-SAM has added the ability for customers to develop native wallet apps for the C-SAM platform. Of course, it's not clear Isis will abandon the use of widgets for its Isis Mobile Wallet 2.0. 

Startup Does Apps
Mutual Mobile, founded in 2009 by current or former University of Texas students, said it has developed mobile apps or “solutions” for such clients as Google, Audi, Cisco, Jaguar Land Rover, Philips and Xerox. It now has more than 300 employees, based in Austin and Hyderabad, India.

The work for Google was a tablet version of a Google shopping app for Android tablets and also the iPad, according to Mutual Mobile. The firm developed an iPad app for Audi’s showrooms to display the car maker’s A8 model. And Mutual Mobile also developed iOS apps for Cisco and Xerox, the latter an enterprise app for the iPad that gives firefighters interactive maps with the status of fire hydrant inspections.

A representative of Mutual Mobile was unavailable for an interview, but a spokeswoman with the firm told NFC Times that it “does not technically have a mobile wallet, however, we are actively involved in developing mobile-wallet technology for our clients–which include some of the biggest names in the business.”

Mutual Mobile is not believed to have any experience with NFC-enabled wallets or connecting wallet applications to secure elements.

But that isn’t expected to be a problem because trusted service managers are believed to handle the secure communications between the SIM card or other secure element and the wallet, along with downloading and managing the applications on the secure element itself. 

Much Less Black
Details on the new Isis wallet features are sketchy, but on the design side, sources who have seen prototypes say the user interface is less complex. The menu comes in from the side, not the top or bottom, and there is much less black in the design.

Though the current Isis Mobile Wallet app has not reportedly had major bugs after finally being released on the market Oct. 22, it has generally received poor reviews from users rating it in Google Play.

That includes a rating of only 1.3 stars out of 5 among Verizon subscribers commenting on the app. AT&T and T-Mobile subscribers rated it not much better, at 2.2 and 2.3 stars, respectively.

By comparison, the Google Wallet received a 3.1-star rating out of five from many more reviewers. Google launched its NFC-enabled wallet in September 2011 and it’s available nationwide, though is believed to be used relatively little.

Isis’ ratings have suffered because of a backlash from many subscribers complaining that the Isis telcos block the Google Wallet from their Android phones and limit their choice of wallets.

One reviewer, Sam Schultz, writing earlier this month, noted the problems with the PINs and communication with the secure element.

Three out of five times it freezes on the PIN screen and needs to be restarted,” he wrote. “One out of five times, it just won't open and needs to be forced closed to work. Randomly, (it) says it can't access the secure element and the whole phone needs to restart to make it work.”

Isis Expansion Expected
Isis continues to promote its mobile-commerce service heavily in the two trial cities and officers of the joint venture at the recent Smart Card Alliance Payments Summit in Salt Lake City were giving off signals that Isis plans to expand the project, ultimately nationwide–though they declined to say when.

Shops of all three Isis telcos, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, have prominent counter displays and other promotions and generally enthusiastic agents selling the service, a recent visit to the shops in Salt Lake City by NFC Times confirmed.

The three telcos have put a total of about 20 smartphones on sale that are certified to run the secure wallet applications with the Isis NFC SIMs. All, or nearly all, of the phones are based on Android. The Isis SIMs are available in the 200 operator shops in the two cities.

While Isis declines to release usage figures, Isis’ chief sales officer, Jim Stapleton, did say earlier this month at the Payments Summit that “active users” use the wallet more than five times per week, though he didn’t release the number of active users.

He also said that the highest use case in Salt Lake City is tapping for transit fares on Utah Transit Authority, or UTA, buses and trams. Isis is funding an offer that lets Isis wallet users ride for free if they tap their Isis wallet phones on terminals at the transit stops or onboard buses.

Jerry Benson, chief operating officer for the transit authority, said at the conference that the UTA was seeing more than 600 transactions per day from Isis wallet users, and the number was climbing.

Isis recently extended the free offer by two months.

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