Isis mobile payments launch in Austin comes as a surprise to Austin

Isis, the new carrier-led mobile-payments platform launched on Monday in Austin, Texas and in Salt Lake City, Utah, but you wouldn’t know from several merchants around town. Despite being listed on the Isis web site, many local merchants had no clue they were now able to accept Isis payments, or even knew what the program was.

After getting told on Tuesday that my handset wasn’t supported under the Isis framework, and then asking a variety of merchants if I could use Isis there, I realized that this launch is softer than a goose down pillow.

Both the carriers and Isis sent out instructions on Monday letting consumers who have Verizon (s vz), AT&T (s t) and T-Mobile that they can go to a nearby store to get a SIM card put inside their phones. They can then link that SIM to a credit card issued by Chase (s ccf), Capitol One or American Express (s axp). Consumers can also pre-pay on an account and use that if they don’t want to link to a credit card.

Verizon’s Isis display. They also have Isis hand sanitizer bottles!

Unfortunately for me, my Samsung Galaxy S III on Verizon wasn’t supported, despite its NFC chip. Only three Verizon phones were at this time, although the store manager said he expected support for more in the coming weeks. Over at AT&T, five handsets are supported including the Galaxy S III. T-Mobile supports three phones including the Galaxy S III. The iPhone (a aapl) in any iteration can’t use the Isis system, although the Verizon manager said the company will later offer an external NFC reader for the Apple handset.

So, starting off there’s a limited number of handsets one might use for Isis, although given that only a few million people live in both launch markets, I can see why carriers may not want to rush to deliver compatible handsets. But when I started calling companies listed on the PayWithIsis web site things got weird.

In the first few pages of results I encountered a bakery I know and love, so I called Sugar Mama’s Bake Shop hoping to see if anyone had used Isis yet to buy something. The owner, Olivia O’Neal, was confused. She wasn’t part of the Isis launch and said that for months other small business owners had been emailing her about Isis, despite the fact that she never filled out her paperwork and didn’t want to participate. Other businesses listed on the site were out of business (Sole Freco) or were listed in the wrong location (Pueblo Viejo Mexican).

And managers at Chevron and CVS, which were both listed, said they hadn’t heard of the program, and that they didn’t support it when I asked if anyone had tried to pay with their phone using Isis, or if I could use Isis. Granted, there are at least 400 businesses listed and I could have just gotten unlucky with my choices, but it was discouraging. Tom Cook, an Isis spokesman, sympathized with my problems and explained that the sites listed on the PayWithIsis web page were populated from a database that Mastercard offers of places accepting contactless payments.

AustinAnd since Isis will work with any contactless payment display, those places do accept Isis for basic payments. Many just don’t know it. Meanwhile, Isis has a higher level of service called Isis Pay & Save for specific merchant partners who want to offer loyalty cards and coupons in the Isis app, although at least one of the local merchants I called, a pet store called Dogadillo, had put the program on hold. I’ve reached out to several other local partners as well to understand their experiences.

At best, Isis has some serious merchant outreach and consumer education to do, and at worst the limited number of handsets and lack of knowledge on the merchant side might turn off consumers who are eager to trade in their wallet for their smartphone. The launch of the program was delayed, and maybe these problems were some of the reason behind that delay.

Tomorrow I’ll get a phone that can handle the new SIM from Verizon and I’ll be able to try this out in the real world, but so far, as a consumer who was eager to play with the latest mobile wallet app, the Isis launch hasn’t been as much fun as I hoped.