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A breakout hit for real-world mobile payments in the U.S. is still a year or two off, despite the emergence of superphones and rich ecosystems with hundreds of thousands of apps, said panelists at VentureBeat’s MobileBeat2010 conference today.

While there are notable mobile payments startups cornering the virtual goods market, like Zong, a viable phone-based rival to the credit card has yet to emerge. The primary barrier isn’t the technology itself, but rather the level of credit penetration in developed markets. In contrast to the U.S., in Asia and Africa, where the majority of phone owners have virtually no access to credit, sophisticated SMS-based mobile payments systems like Safaricom’s M-Pesa have emerged.

“The value-add has to be clear,” said Tarang Shah, the senior vice president of innovation at Bank of America. “In developing countries, the pain of moving cash is high. That’s not the case in developed countries.”

He added, “We’re still a few years away from real products.”

Still, he did say that finance institutions like his employer recognize that consumers are starting to demand banking solutions on their phones. Competitor JPMorgan Chase & Co. began letting customers deposit their checks via iPhone earlier this month, for example.

Panelists agreed that big brands and small businesses alike stand to benefit from mobile payments. Small businesses could use phones to track loyalty and offer rewards, while big brands could use payments apps as another avenue to market to consumers. Operators might be able to step in but only if they add “real value,” said Mohammad Khan, the founder of Vivotech, a provider of near-field or contact-free payments software.

Mobile payments applications may also raise privacy concerns as banks and credit cards companies like Visa collect even more granular data about consumer habits.

“We have data points about consumer behavior that are unbelievable, but we don’t use it unless we get consent,” Shah said. Indeed, other consumer-based location-apps like Loopt have been approached for aggregate check-in data by hedge funds that want to predict the performance of retail stocks. (If a store receives more check-ins, that could serve as evidence that its earnings might fare well during a financial quarter.)

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