The proliferation of smartphones in the United States is driving a wave of new mobile wallet initiatives, but pundits are divided in their opinion about which firms will take the lead in spurring widespread adoption of the payment method. AT&T, American Express, Discover, First Data, Google, Citi, Sprint, MasterCard, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Visa have all thrown their hat in the mobile wallet ring, but some say it will be banks themselves that move to the forefront of this new technology.

Google Wallet, a joint effort by First Data, Citi, MasterCard, and Sprint, was launched in September 2011, with Isis, by Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile set for its debut in early 2012. These and other endeavors are buoyed by increasing consumer confidence in using smartphones less as voice communication devices and more as a mobile computing platform. Various retailers and other industries see this emerging comfort zone as a way to build stronger relationships with customers by saving them both money and time.

The question remains, however, about who is actually in the driver’s seat, consumers, or big card companies like Visa and MasterCard. In this instance, however, these companies face an unusual degree of competition from traditional financial institutions. Consumers who opt into mobile wallet applications like Google or Isis will have to give all their account information to a third party. Should banks, that are already making strong inroads with their own mobile apps, decide to go after mobile wallet transactions, the fact that everything can be done from within one ecosphere could edge out the competitors.

The other problem is infrastructure. Yes, it’s cool to tap your smartphone to a NFC terminal, or to reimburse your dinner companion for your part of the check from your smartphone, but the venues in which you can do these things are still limited. For some time to come, people will still have to carry both their phone and their credit card. Also, the card is a known entity, and swiping it through a reader or handing it over to a waiter is not difficult and involves no learning curve.

Google and competing mobile wallet vendors are counting on added-value services to maintain their competitive edge. Redeeming coupons, claiming loyalty rewards, and the ability to rely on social networking connections from with the wallet app will be strong drawing cards with consumers. In general, independent payments apps that seek to store data from multiple accounts offer more creative capabilities than similar products from traditional financial institutions. In the end, the entity that adds the most value to the experience for customers will “win.”

Like any technology that fundamentally changes how people do business on a daily basis — including the original introduction of magnetic stripe credit cards – there is an initial transitional period. Surely there will be hits and misses with the mobile wallet technology, but judging from the enthusiasm of the early offerings and the growing obsession Americans have with their smartphones, this will not be a flash-in-the-plan phenomenon.

Summary of “Mobile Wallet Madness” by Bryan Ochalla in the Transaction Trends November issue by