Mar 162012
different technology standards like video cassettes cause problems

This morning Paypal announced its PayPal Here service, a gizmo that turns a smartphone into a credit card reader.

On reading PayPal’s media release in the pre-dawn, pre-coffee light I found myself grumpily muttering “which platforms?” as the announcement kept mentioning “smartphones” without saying whether it was for iPhone, Android or other devices.

It turns out to be both Google Android and Apple iOS. It adds an interesting twist to the Point Of Sale market we’ve looked at recently.

The omission of platforms like Windows Phone raises the question of which platforms are going to go the way of Betamax?

Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS systems were the dominant competitors in the video tape market in the early 1980s. They were totally incompatible with each other and users had to make a choice if they wanted to join one camp or the other when they went to buy a video recorder.

On many measures Betamax was the better product but ultimately failed because VHS offered longer program times and Panasonic’s licensing out of their technology meant there were more cheaper models on the market.

A few days ago Bloomberg Businessweek listed the Betamax device as one of the “technology’s failed promises”

With a superficial comparison, Apple would seem to the Betamax while Google and possibly Microsoft are the VHS’s given their diverse range of manufacturers their systems run on and Apple’s refusal to license out iOS, which was one of the reasons for Sony’s failure.

But it isn’t that simple.

In the smartphone wars, it’s difficult to compare them to VCRs as the video tape companies never controlled content and advertising the way smartphone systems do – although Sony did buy Columbia Studios at the peak of the Japanese economic miracle in 1987.

This control of content is what makes the stakes so high in the smartphone and tablet operating systems war. A developer or business that dedicates their resources to one platform could find themselves stranded if that platform fails or changes their terms of services to the developer’s detriment.

Another assumption is there is only room for one or two smartphone systems; it could turn out the market is quite happy with two, three or a dozen different systems and incompatibilities can be overcome with standards like HTML5.

In a funny way, it could turn out to be Android becomes the Smartphone Betamax due to having too diverse a range of manufacturers.

One of the first questions that jumps out when someone announces a new Android app is “which version?” The range of Android versions on the market is confusing customers and not every app will run on each version.

More importantly for financial apps like PayPal Here and Google Wallet, smartphone updates include critical security patches so many of the older phones that miss out on updates pose a risk to the users.

In the financial world confidence is everything and if customers aren’t confident their money is safe or will be promptly refunded in the event of fraud they won’t use the service.

Whether this uncertainty will eventually deal Google out of the game or present an opportunity for Microsoft and other companies is going to be one of the big questions of the mobile payments market.

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