Intelligent cards are competing to make your wallet thinner
A few blog posts back we wrote about the convenience Apple Pay purportedly brings to the merchant payment experience. In a nutshell, while we think it’s a nice step toward improving security, it’s a tiny baby step toward improving the overall checkout experience. It just doesn’t provide much that isn’t already available now. Which is kind of disappointing, because that’s what Apple is supposed to be great at doing: monumentally improving on an existing product experience. But there’s another trend that’s evolving that also promises to improve the experience of using credit cards (or, more broadly, using cards of any stripe). We’re speaking of the “all in one cards”, which can be programmed to behave like pretty much any card in your wallet.
One of the first ones out of the gate promising thinner wallets and “leave-your-affinity-cards-at-home” convenience was Coin, which got lots of press when it was announced. It also prompted the blogosphere to breathlessly ask whether people would be willing to plunk down $100 for the simple convenience of combining all their cards into one. It also provides a bonus feature: it alerts you if your phone and the card get separated (like if you leave the card behind at a restaurant…but you remember to take your phone). Definitely not what we’d call “core functionality”, but a nice add-on nonetheless. Worth $100? We think it could be, if the experience was as seamless as it’s described on the website, if the UI to “switch cards” wasn’t painful or squint-inducing (we have our doubts), and if battery life wasn’t an issue (“Oops…battery’s dead. Ah…er…WAITER?”).
Another contender is Plastc. Ah, yes, another Silicon Valley product name that gets caught in your throat as you read it. Plastc appears to have a pretty slick electronic ink touchscreen driving its UI, so if the mockups featured on the site are to be believed, it probably provides more information for both the user and the merchant, which is a good thing. Because of the eInk display, it looks a bit more like a “regular credit card” than Coin, and can show a picture and a signature on the card. It also comes with an inductive charger and (like all the other products in the category) a bare bones phone-compatible card reader that allows you to “swipe in” all your cards’ data.
And now there’s Stratos, which adds a clever location-awareness feature: double tap the card to “wake it up”, and the UI on your phone gives you a notification screen which suggests what card you might be interested in using, based on your location. So if you frequently go to a particular ATM, tapping the card will bring up a notification asking if you want to use your ATM card. Selecting “yes” sets the card to ATM mode over its Bluetooth LE connection. Because the entire UI for selecting the usage mode is on the phone, you’re hosed if you don’t have your phone with you. Hmm. Not sure that makes a lot of sense. Also, this card comes with a recurring fee of $95/year, or $145 for two years. So, use this thing for a few years, and if you pay with the annual plan you’re out close to $300, which seems like…um…a lot of Coin.
But what’s the strangest common feature of all these cards? None of them are shipping! Not even Coin, which was launched over a year ago and presumably has been taking people’s money and pushing back the actual launch date ever since. Coin and Plastic both say “shipping in Summer 2015”, while Stratos commits to August 2015. But in the case of Coin and Plastc, the fine print makes it clear that “your card will be charged immediately” upon signing up. Are we the only ones who find this whole thing a bit odd? Three separate companies, all vying to provide a very similar convenience service, all within an industry known for its litigiousness and multi-page “customer agreements”, all ready to take your actual credit card NOW, and none of them shipping to non-VIPs even (at least in the case of Coin) after a year? Yeah, something seriously weird going on.
While we are pretty intrigued by the convenience these cards promise, we’re going to hold off until Fall to see how things shake out. If they all deliver as promised and hit the market roughly at the same time, our guess is we’ll find out who has the superior experience design and technology in pretty short order, and the loser(s) will have very limited runway to figure out how to turn things around. Whatever the case, it will be fascinating to see if there is indeed sufficient customer appetite for this new product category, and how it might evolve.