JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup own pieces of Square, whose vision is speeding up the cashless economy. Google and Apple are experimenting with mobile wallets—and are seeing mixed results. And MasterCard and Visa are dabbling in startups. Even PayPal, which currently dominates web payments, is on the acquisition trail. The prize is an army of mobile users that will spend $90 billion on payments this year versus $12 billion in 2012, according to Forrester Research.
That's a rich digital vein for big companies to mine. But for the corporations at the forefront of mobile payment investments and for consumers, the landscape can be confusing. Big banks, credit card companies and technology players are trying to figure out their place in this digital cash grab, and consumers could just end up paying the same old vendors in new ways.
Google Wallet has floundered since its launch a few years ago. Google's latest features let consumers send money through their Gmail addresses via an app. Matt Harris, a managing director at Bain Capital Ventures, said Google is still "licking its wounds" but will be back, especially since failure is not something feared among technology companies. Before joining Bain Capital Ventures, Harris worked for Village Ventures, which backed mobile payments player Dwolla and the mobile bank Simple.
(Read more: Retail banks' worst nightmare? Google)
In fact, Google and its peers have little time to wait, given the aggressive competition in the mobile banking space, Harris said. PayPal, for example, isn't sitting still—it recently acquired Braintree for $800 million. Ultimately acquired by eBay, PayPal got its start in 1998 when it jumped ahead of the credit card companies, which were just too slow in their move toward web payments. "There was a gap in the market," said Anuj Nayar, senior director of global initiatives at PayPal.