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EBay’s Zong Takeover Has Google Vying With AmEx to Make Deals

EBay Inc.’s purchase of mobile- payment startup Zong Inc. for $240 million is stepping up pressure on companies such as Google Inc. and American Express Co. to make their own acquisitions in the market. Photographer: Chris Hondros/Getty Images
EBay Inc.’s purchase of mobile- payment startup Zong Inc. for $240 million is stepping up pressure on companies such as Google Inc. and American Express Co. to make their own acquisitions in the market. Photographer: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

July 14 (Bloomberg) -- EBay Inc.’s purchase of mobile-payment startup Zong Inc. for $240 million is stepping up pressure on companies such as Google Inc. and American Express Co. to make their own acquisitions in the market.

Google has held exploratory discussions with mobile-payment startups, according to two people with knowledge of the meetings. Credit card companies, including American Express and Visa Inc., also are meeting with takeover candidates, though deals may not be imminent, people familiar with the talks said.

More consumers are looking to pay for things like movie tickets, apps and other items with their phones -- rather than cards or cash. That’s pitting financial-service providers, which benefit from transactions, against technology companies like Google. Both sides aim to use mergers and acquisitions to shore up their positions, said Richard Crone, who runs Crone Consulting LLC., a firm focused on mobile banking and payments.

“There’re much more M&A and roll-ups to come in this space,” Crone said in an interview. “You will see the activity happening before the end of the year.”

The total value of mobile payments will reach $670 billion by 2015, up from $240 billion in 2011, according to Juniper Research. That includes transactions for digital and physical goods, money transfers, and payments using near field communication -- a wireless technology that lets users tap their phones against a reader to make a purchase.

Mainstream Acceptance

Many companies are shopping for startups that help users charge purchases to their phone bills. Within a year, 40 percent of all U.S. mobile subscribers will put items other than ring tones on wireless bills, according to Chetan Sharma, an industry analyst in Issaquah, Washington. That’s up from 30 percent now.

Potential acquisition targets include Boku Inc.; Payfone Inc.; BilltoMobile, which is majority-owned by Danal Co.; and Amdocs Ltd.’s OpenMarket Inc., Sharma said.

Syniverse Technologies Inc., MindMatics AG’s Mopay unit, Bango and Vindicia Inc. could be candidates as well, according to Crone. Acquisition targets will sell for 10 to 20 times their trailing 12-month sales, he said. It’s unclear how that measures up against the Zong deal because EBay didn’t disclose the startup’s revenue when it announced the purchase last week.

Still, some startups may struggle to attract a deep-pocketed suitor or land that kind of premium. And large technology and finance companies may choose to develop the capabilities themselves.

‘Pressure to Act’

Representatives from Google, American Express and Visa declined to comment on any potential deals, as did Bango, Boku, Payfone, Syniverse and Vindicia. OpenMarket didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Ingo Lippert, CEO of Palo Alto, California-based Mopay, said the Zong deal will likely give rise to more acquisitions, though his company is “solely focused” on operations.

“We’ve been forecasting consolidation within the mobile-payments space for some time,” Lippert said in an e-mail. “With Zong’s acquisition, companies testing out solutions within the mobile-payments market will now feel increased pressure to act.”

Investments in payment startups began picking up several months ago. In February, Visa agreed to spend about $190 million in cash, plus performance incentives, to purchase PlaySpan Inc. The company handles purchases of virtual goods in online games and social networks. In April, American Express led a $19 million funding round in Payfone, a New York-based developer of a mobile-payment service.

EBay’s Buying Spree

Last year, EBay acquired Red Laser and Milo, two comparison-shopping applications that allow users to scan product barcodes and read reviews. With Zong, the company will get a bigger foothold for its PayPal payment service on phones, especially in developing countries.

Zong lets people pay for things by putting them on their mobile-phone bills. That’s attractive in emerging markets, where credit card adoption is low.

“The phone is ubiquitous, and credit cards are not,” Rodger Desai, CEO of Payfone, said in an interview.

U.S. carriers lets third-party services such as BilltoMobile operate on their networks. Verizon Wireless, for instance, allows charges of as much as $25 a month. BilltoMobile also declined to comment on whether it was a takeover target.

Carrier bills contained $3 billion worth of charges for virtual goods last year, and these charges are rising at 38 percent annually, Crone estimates. Those purchases can include ring tones, dating-site subscriptions and weapons for mobile video games.

Purchases of apps charged to wireless bills reached $5 billion last year and are growing at 68 percent a year, Crone said. Consumers in countries such as South Korea are increasingly charging physical goods to carrier bills as well.

“We are seeing very rapid growth,” said Jim Greenwell, CEO of BilltoMobile.

To contact the reporter on this story: Olga Kharif in Portland at okharif@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tom Giles at tgiles5@bloomberg.net

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