Online to Offline: How Mobile Payments Will Shake Up Real-World Commerce

With Google queuing up the debut of its mobile payments system on Thursday and Square announcing plans to replace the cash register and the wallet in one fell swoop, there’s a lot of interest in the use of cell phones to pay for things in the physical world. This morning, we’re hearing a bit more about this hot area of investment at a panel at TechCrunch Disrupt in New York, which you can watch by livestream. Exploring the topic are Stephanie Tilenius of Google Commerce and Payments, Alex Rampell of “transactional advertising” platform TrialPay, and venture capitalist Lewis Gersh of Metamorphic Partners. TechCrunch editor Erick Schonfeld is moderating.

Q: How do mobile payments affect daily deals and other local commerce? Tilenius: We call it the age of mobile-local.Consumers will be able to walk around and get deals. You’ll see us embedding offers throughout our mobile experience. Gersh: We could retarget consumers [with advertising] who were in a retail store. It could be Groupon having local pickup for offers.

Q: How can you make local advertising work, beyond Groupon? Rampell: Local businesses would rather get a check than a click, and they’re willing to pay for that. Tilenius: Groupon is a great model, and congratulations to them for creating it. But Groupon has tapped into one element of it. Ultimately it’s going to be about customer management.

Q: What’s compelling about Near-Field Communication (which allows consumers to wave a cell phone at a product to get more information or to pay for it), which Google is backing? Tilenius: The ease of use is compelling. You could see a product in Gap and if it’s not in your size, you could use NFC to order one in your size and have it shipped to you tomorrow.

Q: How soon will mobile payments catch on? Tilenius: It’s going to happen quickly. There’s already a ton of activity in this space (though a lot of it is overseas). In Singapore, everybody uses NFC for payments.

Q: How would NFC help local or e-commerce? Gersh: If you go to a local coffee shop and say I can promise you 1,000 new customers if you install this device, they’ll probably do it.

Q: What do you think of Square’s latest announcement? Rampell: Square is really competing with cash. If you want to make a $500 purchase at a flea market, this works better than cash. They can manage the fraud problem. Tilenius: Square isn’t trying to compete with Visa and Mastercard. They’re servicing really small merchants and displacing cash. It would work well to pair deals with that.

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Yahoo Goes Meta-Social With Facebook Integration and Yahoo Pulse

If you can’t dominate, aggregate. That seems to be the basic model online for also-rans in whatever online activity you can think of. And so it goes with Yahoo, which despite some 500 million monthly users worldwide has spent fruitless years trying to make them socialize on countless Yahoo properties.

So Sunday night Pacific time, Yahoo announced a couple of moves (not yet live as of this hour, it appears) that seek to keep Yahoo in the social swing dominated by Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter despite its being unable to create a sustainable social networking property of its own. From the press release and Yahoo’s Yodel Anecdotal blog, here are the two key moves:

* Facebook Integration Yahoo! has reached an important milestone in its partnership with Facebook. Starting this week, people who use both Yahoo! and Facebook can link their accounts and view and share updates with friends across both networks.  People who connect their accounts can consume their Facebook News Feed on the Yahoo! homepage and in Yahoo! Mail and other Yahoo! sites and services.  Additionally, people who create and share content on Yahoo! sites – including Yahoo! News, Yahoo! Sports, Flickr, and many Yahoo! entertainment sites, such as omg!, Yahoo! TV, and Yahoo! Movies – can easily share their actions with friends back on Facebook. Additional integrations will be ongoing.

A Refresh of Yahoo! Profiles Launched in October 2008, Yahoo! Profiles has allowed people to manage their identity and activities across Yahoo! from a central location. Yahoo! has refreshed the experience to make its privacy settings easier to use and to give people a central dashboard to manage what they share on Yahoo! from the external social accounts and apps that they have linked to Yahoo!, starting with Facebook and with others to come later this year. Yahoo! Profiles has been renamed Yahoo! Pulse to better reflect its broader ability to manage Yahoo! settings, privacy, and account links. The updated experience is available at http://pulse.yahoo.com.

It’s not actually a bad strategy. It seems doubtful that Yahoo (or anyone else in sight, for that matter) will challenge Facebook, in particular, in social networking given that company’s momentum. At the same time, though, it seems doubtful (despite much heavy breathing about Facebook taking over the next era of the Web) that Facebook will take over everything social that people want to do online. Twitter, for one, has forged a distinct enough value proposition that I’m sure not giving it up no matter how much Facebook copies its features.  Then there’s Foursquare, Google Buzz, Quora, and whatever other dozen shiny new things come along.

So we all need something that aggregates all that in some kind of nice dashboard. Tweetdeck and others–and even Facebook itself to some extent–may provide that, I suppose. But lots and lots of people already use Yahoo as something of an aggregator for news and other activities, so it’s not out of the question that Yahoo can serve a role here. Even if it’s sort of a last resort to stay in the social game, it’s a pretty good last resort.

Google Buzz Won’t Kill Anything. Except Your Notions of What Email Is.

Every time Google comes out with a new service, pundits rush to assure us that it’s going to kill this or that startup. Or the skeptical ones that it’s an attempt to kill this or that startup but won’t because it sucks in this way or that. As usual, Google Buzz, announced today and scheduled to roll out to Gmail users in coming days, is neither.

The social updating services Google Buzz offers certainly resemble those variously offered by Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and others. And there’s little doubt that Google executives are concerned that those fast-growing services could siphon off attention and eventually ad dollars from its core search service. But it’s also a dead-obvious thing for Google to take its Gmail service, used by some 175 million people a month, and graft social services atop them. O’Reilly Answers has a nice summary of those features.

Although Google Buzz looks like a me-too service–and frankly it is in some ways–it does start with a couple of potent advantages. For one, as Tim O’Reilly notes, it’s starting with a huge user base. And Gmail already isn’t just an email box. It now incorporates chat, the Google Voice phone service, and other optional add-ons such as a view of your Google Docs. In that sense, adding another communications services isn’t a big stretch. Suddenly, Gmail is the place where you communicate in all kinds of ways.

Not least, Google’s knowledge of people’s preferences and connections could go a long way toward providing the filter that every other social service lacks. Facebook, Twitter, you name it–it’s nearly impossible to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Google’s promising that it can provide that filter with some simple tools such as an “unlike” button for posts you don’t care about, which then will inform what posts you might see in the future. If it works, Google Buzz will be successful. But that’s far from certain.

Google’s challenges here are many: It’s the organic simplicity of Facebook and Twitter that has helped them catch fire, and Google Buzz. Yahoo (which has its own quite different Buzz service) has tried to turn its email service into a broad social network by adding similar services. By most accounts that hasn’t succeeded because the multiplicity of services is just too confusing. Google has the same problem, as Danny Sullivan notes. And where’s Google Wave, which itself was supposed to be the brave new social future of email, in all this?

Danny’s colleague at Search Engine Land, Matt McGee, raises a thornier issue: Do people really want to mix business with pleasure? Email has quite different purposes than social networking. I’m betting a fair number of people don’t want their Gmail messages (which many probably use for work) intermingled with their social updates. Yes, Google’s providing controls over what appears where or to whom, but that may be a click or two too many for most people.

I haven’t been able to try it out yet, so I can’t judge how well Google Buzz works. Maybe it will be just another Google product that goes nowhere. But I also think Google’s on to something–as Microsoft’s slam and Yahoo’s “we were there first” protest both prove. And it has the resources to become a social powerhouse–even if that potential has produced little so far. Neither Facebook nor Twitter executives need lose sleep over it for now, but neither have they won the game. The evolution of online communications is far from over.

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