Priceline just bought its way into the mobile payments game

The Priceline Group said this morning it will pay $2.6 billion in cash to acquire the restaurant reservations portal OpenTable. The move gives Priceline “a natural extension in restaurant marketing services,” CEO Darren Huston said in a prepared statement, in addition to OpenTable’s core business that books reservations for 15 million diners per month at 31,000 restaurants.

Priceline owns, Kayak and Agoda in addition to its flagship site, and as Gigaom’s Kevin Fitchard observed the company now has an opportunity to apply its discount bookings model to the restaurant industry, selling unused tables to hungry consumers at a discount. OpenTable had toyed with a daily deals-type offering but killed the program in 2011, Fitchard notes, and it still offers occasional promotional discounts for restaurants.

But one important — if under-reported — piece to this deal may be the mobile payments program OpenTable began offering to iOS users in San Francisco earlier this year. While proximity mobile payments in the U.S. have foundered for almost every player except Starbucks, OpenTable has crucial assets that could make its new program a success: Not only does it have a huge presence in the clearly-defined vertical restaurant market, it has a massive user base and a recognized brand. its app appears to be well integrated with existing POS systems, and — most importantly — it delivers value to both the restaurant and the consumer. I won’t be surprised if Priceline/OpenTable emerges as a major player in mobile payments in the next few years.