Apple’s recent introduction of Apple Pay, it’s foray into a digital wallet service, marks Apple’s continued march into being the go-between between consumers and businesses. Many retailers have been reluctant to invest in new technology to secure credit cards because of a desire not to invest in a technology they weren’t sure would be the winner amongst all the alternatives. However, with Apple’s considerable market share and the backing of the major card networks and issuing banks, retails are much more comfortable that this is a technology that has a good chance at surviving.
Credit cards have a long history (over 40 years) and they were invented in an era before the Internet, before identify theft and before anybody really thought about cyber security. The problem has only been getting worse and at some point it had to come to a head. The credit card itself is an insecure device (all the information necessary to steal it is printed right on the card) and the payment mechanism is insecure (all the information necessary to steal it is transmitted through the payment networks). Apple’s solution addresses both of these security concerns through tokenization. The credit card number is neither stored on your iPhone nor transmitted through the network. Now the only way to fake payments is to have physical control of the device, which can also be shut down remotely using Apple’s find my phone feature.
[As a side note, I’m heartened to learn that security and privacy, especially in the wake of Apple’s Celebgate, are playing a very prominent role in the promotion of Apple Pay.
“Easy, Secure, and Private”
“We are not in the business of collecting your data. Apple doesn’t know what you bought, where you bought it, how much you paid for it.”
“Cashier doesn’t see your name, credit card number or security code.”]
Without diminishing the scope and scale of what Apple Pay has tried to accomplish, they seem to be setting their sights rather low. Now, I can’t predict what Apple has in store for the future, but credit cards and debit cards are only one piece of the puzzle. A wallet, to many, is much much more than credit and debit cards. Tim Cook talked about card based payments being a $4 trillion dollar a year business in the United States. No doubt that is huge. But consider how many of those people making those payments have iPhones? How many of them have the iPhone 6 with NFC necessary to do payments? How many of those are among the unbanked who don’t have access to credit and debit cards?
The fact is, there are many many more ways to pay than credit and debit cards. Card payments are roughly $11 trillion a year in the global economy. Cash? Try $70 trillion. And what about airline points? Store loyalty points? Canadian Tire money? Bitcoin?
The fact is the digital wallet can be so much more. As Edward Castronova and Joshua Fairfield talk about in their recent NY Times op-ed, the digital wallet of the future will combine all of these different payment mechanisms and optimize them to make sure you pay the least amount possible.
Many people have suggested that Apple Pay may prove to be a killer to Bitcoin, but the fact is they serve different purposes and there is room for both in this market. Michael Casey suggests that perhaps Bitcoin can serve a better purpose as a backend payment mechanism for business to business transfers of funds. Larger value transactions will benefit from both the small transaction fees of Bitcoin and the highly subsidized security costs.
To Castronova and Fairfield’s point the real killer app will be achieving frictionless exchange between the varied payment mechanisms. Will this be Ripple? Or some other yet undetermined service?
One of the complaints economists leverage against Bitcoin’s widespread adoption as “money” is it lacks utility as a unit of account. True, very few people price goods in bitcoin. But if the frictionless future is to be achieved, perhaps we need a paradigm shift away from pricing goods in a monetary unit. Doing so hides information in the economy. When the price of gas goes up, in reality it is the value of the dollar dropping. That reality is masked when we price gas in dollars.