Today, Austin and Salt Lake City are getting the first Isis-enabled phones from Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. It's a test program for the NFC-based payment system before it gets released to everyone else. But what is Isis, exactly, and how is it different from the dozens of other mobile payment techs?
Isis is an NFC-Based Payment Technology...
At its most basic, Isis is a method of payment, like Google Wallet, that's based on Near Field Communication (NFC). That means you can use it in stores to pay for things just by tapping your phone against a kiosk, the way you would swipe a credit card.
...that uses your SIM card for security...
So what's the difference from Google Wallet, then? It's the security.
Google Wallet's security is all done on Google's end. When you pay with Google Wallet, Google itself pays the merchant, and your credit card data is processed from Google's database. (Before a recent change, the Google stored your card's data on a different chip inside of your phone.) This means, basically, that it's not much different from using one-click purchasing on Amazon, or anywhere else that has your credit card information on file on its servers.
Isis works differently. It stores your credit card data on secure SIM card that you have to get from your carrier. The data is encrypted on the SIM card, and uses an outside service called Gemalto to handle the secure handshake between the merchant and your phone.
...that's only for in-store payments...
Because the card data is on your SIM card, Isis can't integrate into other payment platforms like, say, Paypal. So using Isis will be one more service you're looped into, as opposed to something like Google Wallet that would let you use the same payment data on the web. It's a minor inconvenience, but one to pay attention to as everything becomes integrated, and the goal becomes consolidating all of the services you use.
...is actually supported by most major carriers...
At the end of the day, carriers rule what ends up on their phones, and Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile are all partners in putting Isis together. That's one reason why Sprint has been the only carrier to actively adopt Google Wallet, even though it's working on its own mobile wallet. Verizon has famously shut out Google Wallet from its phones, and AT&T and T-Mobile haven't done it any favors either. Isis shouldn't run into those problems.
Isis is also part of a relatively recently formed organization called the Electronic Transactions Association, which is a collection of everyone involved in the mobile payment food chain, from carriers to credit card companies to services like Google, PayPal and Isis.
...and is probably the best chance to get NFC off the ground...
Mobile payments is still wide open. Square is more of a stopgap between the massive success of credit cards as a technology and whatever comes next. Google Wallet has been filibustered into irrelevance by the carriers. And PayPal is off forming some bizarre partnership/phone-hat deal with McDonald's. But no one's really slammed the door and combined functional tech and broad carrier adoption. Isis seems like the best chance for that.
...but it's unclear when, exactly, that will be.
Thing is, despite being a good bet to be the one to take NFC over the top, we're still not sure when that's going to happen. Today's an important step, but there's no indication of how long it'll be before it shows up in a wider context. Isis has been around for years at this point. So while phones with NFC are becoming more common, we still might be a ways away from figuring out exactly how, exactly, we're supposed to use them.