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It’s 2012. Have you made your first mobile payment yet?

The year was 1996. Email was a really new concept and the few cell phones around were the size and weight of bricks. Selling products on the Internet had just started only a few years earlier and online sales had already reached $600 million. The industry was projecting a dramatic growth rate to $2.4 billion in 1997.

At the time, I had just started a new job at Firefly Network, one of the first Internet start-ups located in Cambridge, MA. Firefly was founded by a group of engineers from MIT Media lab and some business people from Harvard Business School. They had invented new technology, collaborative filtering, that helped you find new stuff by matching you with people you never met but were swirling around in cyberspace that liked the same stuff you liked. Back then it was hard to imagine that recommendations engines would be commonplace in e-commerce sites today.

My job was to help create a toolkit that online retailers like Barnes and Noble and Yahoo would eventually use to collect user preferences anonymously, make recommendations, and send targeted advertising from within their e-commerce sites. As a product manager, I knew it was important to put myself in the role of the consumer and make my first online purchase. I held my credit card in one hand while carefully entering the numbers one-by-one into the web browser with the index finger of the other. I’m pretty sure the browser was Netscape Navigator as Microsoft was playing catch-up with Internet Explorer. Naysayers were spreading fears about security and privacy while techno-optimists were declaring the end of the “brick-and-mortar” store.

Fast forward 16 years later. From our 1996 vantage point we couldn’t have easily imagined that e-commerce would become mainstream by 1999 and is now currently heading towards 1 trillion in online retail sales worldwide. It was hard to predict that the number of mobile phones would exceed the entire population of the world. Or, that the babies the dotcom era birthed such as Google, Amazon, eBay and Facebook would eventually grow up to become billion dollar companies. And that they would become the new entrants into the mobile payments market which is expected to reach $670 billion by 2015.

So when Google Wallet launched last year, as a product manager at ACI, I knew the significance and importance of making my first mobile payment. It was surprisingly easy to find a Nexus S 4G Android smartphone at the local Sprint store. It’s one of the few smartphones on the market that contains an embedded NFC chip that can send encrypted data a short distance (“near field”) to a reader located, for instance, next to a retail cash register. Loaded on my new phone was the Google Wallet which can hold my credit card information. Armed with my mobile wallet, I headed to my local store to make my first mobile payment. While checking out at the register I told the cashier I was going to pay using my phone – no plastic required. She had never heard of this and was excited to watch. And before I knew it there was a crowd surrounding me as I tapped my phone against the reader to make my payment. We all recognized we were getting a glimpse into a different future.

As product managers, business analysts and marketing professionals we are constantly challenged to step out of our comfort zones, stay curious and be willing to take risks with our product lines. Yet we also have the responsibility of performing the careful analysis to distinguish between the leading and the bleeding edge. We need to maintain the careful balancing act of putting forth wise investment proposals while still being early enough to market so that we can play a key role in a future the is unfolding before us. It is only by embracing the new while carefully navigating the currents of change that we will become co-creators of the future of payments.

It’s 2012. Have you made your first mobile payment yet?

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