Isis in action: It’s pretty simple but no replacement wallet

The mobile carrier payment platform Isis launched Monday in Austin, Texas and Salt Lake City, Utah; and it works pretty much as advertised. After a lousy initial experience with the service when my phone wasn’t supported and I couldn’t even find merchants who knew about the program or accepted Isis, I scored a review phone from Isis and Verizon so I could purchase my coffees and gas with nary a wallet.

Right now a scant 11 phones are supporting the Isis program, which requires a special SIM card in the phone and an NFC chip. To activate the service, a user must go into the store to get an Isis SIM card and must also download the Isis app. It’s pretty painless. After selecting a PIN you have an option of choosing to link a credit card or use a pre-paid option that you top up using a credit card. As a bonus, Isis starts you off with $10 in cash and if you fill the pre-paid cash card with more cash, you get another $15. But if you don’t make a charge using the pre-paid card every nine months you’ll get hit with a $2 monthly account maintenance fee.

Basically, that’s $25 for you if you try out the service. And if you visit one of the special Pay & Save merchants you might get even more. For example, Jamba Juice is part of the Pay & Save program, which means it will send special offers to your app and that whenever you pay with Isis you are also exchanging your loyalty card info. No more digging for those lousy punch cards!

My offer was a buy-one-Jamba-juice-get-one free. I didn’t take them up on it since I don’t need two Jamba Juices, but if you like smoothies and have one of the chosen phones, you could get more than a gallon of frozen fruit goodness for free when you count the $10-$25 you get just for signing up.

The transaction experience.

The transaction process is smooth, You whip out your phone, open the app, enter your PIN and then tap it against the contactless payment tab. You click a button that says “OK,” and you’re done. I’m not quite clear on what the “OK” button is for, since it doesn’t confirm my balance, which would have been nice. The clerk presses a button and you’re done. In my Jamba Juice test, the clerk fumbled the transaction a bit, and said that machine wasn’t working, but his colleague came right over and made it work. The clerk also said, “We’ve had a lot of problems with this,” but he may have just not known what button to press on the register.

Isis, mobile payments, NFCOver at McDonalds, the process was the same. The only difference was the guy at the register clicked his button and the transaction was taken care of without any questions. As far as paying, I’d rate it as more convenient than cash, but less convenient than a credit card — mostly because of all the entering a PIN, swiping and then clicking OK, then manually refreshing to see what my balance is to confirm the amount. I can link multiple cards to the app and choose which one I want to use, but since it’s not accepted everywhere I shop, it’s not like I can forgo my wallet. And so I’m likely to stick with my credit card for the time being. But your mileage may vary.

A few caveats and quibbles.

I have some minor quibbles with the app, namely that I have to manually refresh to see my balance, which should update automatically and that random “OK” screen that has me confirm payment without actually showing me the payment. And that $2 monthly maintenance fee is pretty high, so if you don’t think you’ll use it, you may want to avoid the pre-paid cash card.

If you have loaded your cash card, then to cancel the service you will have to call a customer service hotline. They’ll want your card number, which will likely be on the same phone you’re calling them from, but you can work that out with a headset. Otherwise you can de-activate and re-activate cards from the app. The customer service hotline answered promptly and the people were polite and knowledgeable for my basic questions. As a note, the FAQ on the app is far more detailed than the one on the website.

I can’t get this service on my phone, and I’m not sure I’m terribly upset. Not enough places accept contactless payments for me to be secure dumping my wallet, and it’s not so convenient that I’d see myself using it over a credit card. It’s a nice-to-have option if you feel secure linking a credit card to the service (and I would on my own phone) for the random occasion you have your phone but no wallet, and you encounter a place that accepts contactless payments, but I wouldn’t pre-load any cash on it for that situation because the maintenance fee is pretty high. But depending on where you live and where you shop you may think it’s awesome.