Boku  currently lets cell phone owners pay for things through carrier billing in over 60 countries. Usually these transactions are for small things--items like apps, ringtones, small-scale online purchases--perhaps because that's all users are comfortable with, unsure of how big their cell phone bill will be at the end of the month. That's all about to change .
Boku Accounts is built on top of Boku's global partnerships with companies like AT&T and Vodafone, and is designed to allow purchases in physical stores, which means it can be used for buying bigger-ticket items. It works via an NFC-powered sticker that users slap onto the back of their existing cell phone (smart or dumb variety), which connects to the ever-growing number of merchant terminals that support wireless payment. There's also a standard-format pre-paid plastic card that works in lower-tech payment terminals and also online or in-app, but which makes exactly the same transaction as would happen via the NFC sticker.
That means the service works pretty much anywhere standard credit cards are accepted, and also lets people send payments to other Boku users. Clients get a special online interface to their account, which lets them charge up the system with cash, and also lets them track where they're spending their money. But the system is framed by the cell phone carriers themselves, who'll issue the account in a branded format to their customers alongside their usual cell phone tariff.
Because there's a loyalty and rewards scheme in the mix, the system can be seen as an early play to gain market share in the mobile payments space  ahead of the expected (and imminent?) mobile payment revolution.
It's also a symptom of how complex the mobile pay game will get, as it inserts the carriers themselves very much into mobile transactions--a place they want to be to exert power, gather data, and probably earn a fee. This is in contrast to other schemes like Apple's  EasyPay, which circumvents carriers, credit card companies, and NFC tech to achieve a similar mobile pay solution , or Google's  Wallet, which is an NFC solution also independent of carriers but very much controlled by Google--which also wants to gain access to all your transaction data. Boku's also placing itself as a rival to PayPal, which is trying to enable  easy mobile payments through a different method, but which is also keen to insert itself into your mobile payments future.
Interestingly enough, MasterCard itself made an announcement yesterday  that lets users of current-generation cell phones in developing nations perform a similar sort of transaction as that enabled by Boku's new system--including person-to-person payments and transactions in stores that are too remote to rely on existing point-of-sale technology. It's dubbed the Mobile Money Partnership Program, and it sees the credit card firm partnering with local carriers to try to target the 2.5 billion "financially underserved customers" in the developing world. Mung Ki Woo, Group Executive Mobile at MasterCard, spoke with Fast Company and noted that simple "closed-loop" mobile payment services have exploded across the developing world, because that's the way carriers and merchants have set things up: "That's something we want to change. This is what we're doing with this partnership program: We are reaching out to the different players in this market and saying bascially 'let's create this new generation of services which will allow the mobile money consumers to interact with existing accounts.'" It's a move to try to unify mobile payment in the developing world around MasterCard's technology, and Mung Ki added that some of the ideas may well find their way back to MasterCard's developed world mobile pay plans.
And so Boku's move--as well as MasterCard's new play--are a sign that mobile pay is quite definitely en route sooner rather than later. And, as we've noted, it may not all be great news  for you and me.
[Image: Flickr user Simon Greig ]