Comment: California handset rivalries eclipse obstinate Aussie banks

Ian Rogers Payments, mobile & wallets

A keen eye for fostering innovation in vital digitally enabled markets comes through clearly in the ACCC's draft decision – one that tells Australia's boycotting banks to go jump.

The ACCC has taken the side of Apple to deflect a try-on by Australian banks over NFC, handset access and pricing shenanigans.

It's a famous slap down by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission of a sector conditioned to pre-program and jointly run any reform of payments practices.

Google versus Apple. Android Pay versus Apple Pay.

Those market pairings and the rivalry among these enabling technologies are the central themes of the ACCC's draft assessment, one that's critical of the Australian banking sector's improbable pantomime over a collective boycott of Apple Pay.

National Australia Bank and Westpac pushed ahead, recently, into negotiations with Apple over their entry into the American giant's ecosystem. The NAB and Westpac talks proceeded unperturbed by their alleged shared wish to take on the American hero of the mobile user experience in an antipodean prize fight.

A ludicrous scenario, but one that has already had a trial run: New Zealand was the focus of the most recent, if inconclusive, talks by NAB's BNZ and Westpac.

Talks with other interested banking counterparties continue: there's a queue at the Apple entry booth.

And the ACCC has every reason to welcome the US interloper's tantalising offer of social reform. It may dive right into informed participation around the reconfiguring – even a re-socialising – of consumer payments.

Apple, for its part, is no doubt looking to divert profits of an oligopoly banking sector. Apple may share the gains with its owners and its loyal Australian customers – but it's not interested in sharing with the Aussie banks.

But the Aussie banks can just cut costs, even cut profits, disrupt the disruptors and join in, if customer retention and continued access is what they really want.

The notion that Australia's largest retail banking operators will shrug their shoulders at the commercial prosperity in reach by ignoring Apple is … unbelievable.

The window for banks in Australia to see sense and play by digital's rules may not be open long, however. Apple could crash right in and take up its own limited Australian banking licence. It would be unwilling to gain a full banking licence, given the tech firm has never been near a bank, other than to deposit its cash profits. But Apple may be able to swing a conditional licence, which would allow it to clip the ticket on a range of payments made though its system, not to mention the spectre of stored value.

Even if small amounts, say $100, were allowed to be housed on millions of iPhones, it would cut a swathe through lazy bank balance sheets.

And then there's the actual fees – although it's not really about the fees. This battle is really being fought for the hearts, minds – and wallets – of the banks' customer and a treasure trove of payments information.

The irrepressible Michael Harte, towards the end of his tenure as CBA's chief information officer, believed the bank's customer payments data was more valuable than the transaction fees.

And that is where the tension lies: the fight over who owns the customer, as the loser may well be condemned to creeping but permanent irrelevance.

The applicants – our biggest banks – are not done for yet, not by a long stretch. They will be responding to the ACCC's draft determination with additional supporting arguments for authorisation, looking to convince not just the competition regulator, but a sceptical political class (and the banks' own customers) that they are the champions of true competition for digital wallets and mobile payments in Australia.