PayPal Acquisition Hints at Company's Approach to the Mobile Wallet

EBay-owned PayPal said in February it will conduct several pilot programs over the next year to enable consumers to use their PayPal accounts–at the register.

But it didn’t say how it would overcome technology barriers, such as finding a way for a smartphone to connect to the register without requiring a consumer to get a new phone with a near-field communication chip, or without making the retailer buy fancy new hardware.

Today, it announced an acquisition that may be one way it could solve this costly dilemma.

On the PayPal blog today, the company announced that PayPal has acquired Fig Card, which has developed a way for merchants to accept mobile payments by using a low-cost USB device that plugs into the cash register or point-of-sale terminal. Customers will have to install the Fig app on their smartphones.

“We loved their approach to point-of-sale, particularly because it was driven by the same vision that we have at PayPal–in the future, transactions can be as smart as a computer and not as dumb as paper. We won’t need our physical wallets. We’ll be able to pay any way we want, from any device, anywhere in the world with both flexibility and privacy,” said Peter Chu, PayPal Mobile’s senior director.

Fig Card was founded in early 2010 by Hasty Granbery and Max Metral, who will be joining the PayPal team. On the company’s Web site, it admits that the obvious challenge for the company is its small size, but that it was moving forward with trials among a handful of merchants in Boston’s south end.

Prior to founding Fig, Metral was co-founder and CTO of Firefly, which was bought by Microsoft. At Microsoft, he developed Microsoft Passport, one of the first single-sign-on systems. He then co-founded PeoplePC, where he met Granbery. PeoplePC was purchased by Earthlink.

If you spend any time with eBay at all, it’s clear that a lot of its emphasis is on PayPal. On Wednesday, it noted the division’s contribution to revenue growth in the first quarter and said in the first three months of the year, PayPal added one million accounts for the sixth quarter in a row. It now expects to achieve 100 million active accounts by the end of next quarter.

Additionally, PayPal was just shy of hitting its first billion-dollar quarter, and now represents 39 percent of the company’s overall revenues. To support its goals further, eBay recently acquired WHERE, a location-based mobile services and ad network.

While PayPal is one of the longest-standing online payment providers, it faces steep competition in the digital payment space from both incumbent providers and new entrants.

For instance, the Fig technology sounds similar to what Square is trying to accomplish by passing out dongles that can enable virtually any smartphone to accept payments. Square announced this week that it received an investment by Visa. Other giants like Google are getting into the space, and additionally, Facebook is becoming a big player in the space with the roll-out of Credits, a system used today to pay for virtual goods, digital items, and, increasingly, physical goods, like daily deals.

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