Thinking about Payments

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how awkward, broken and balkanized payments are of late – I went as far as to build a few prototypes of slightly different takes…but time & money were a concern and left them alone. But a few recent things made me revisit this:

  • A few articles about the new, smaller credit-card skimmers now appearing.
  • A frustrating experience waiting for an available debit machine to pay at a restaurant
  • A frustrating experience waiting for a debit machine to dial backup lines and failing multiple times.
  • Experience setting up a Stripe account, a Square account & a Beanstream account for clients & friends.

There’s a common thread through many of these experiences which were:

  • overly dependent on potentially unknown third-parties & intermediaries
  • Handing control to an unknown person
  • slowness
  • physical machines that aren’t mine.
  • trust issues.

And so, here’s my point about payments, and where we should aim to move to (at least in the connected, western world – where my experience is. Call it my “manifesto for modern payments“, to be grandiose:

  1. Physical cards are dangerous. All hardware is on a slower upgrade cycle than software. This means that security breaches are slower to be resolved. Also, a physical card must be read by a physical device, which opens it to tampering. Physical payment mechanisms (apart from cash), should be avoided.
  2. Payment should be on my terms. The act of waiting for a machine, paying while the server hovers over you, and then handing it back is awkward and slow: It slows table turn over at restaurants, you’re touching something 100s of others have, it creates tension if around money availability, it doesn’t always work. Also, why always only pay at the end of a meal? Why not upfront? Or During? Or, even, a few hours later to make sure my decision to eat those funky-smelling oysters didn’t cause a hospital visit? Or to prevent dine-and-dashers because they’ve already “registered”
  3. I should choose who I want to pay with. Every different store uses a different merchant provider, with different hardware. None are identical. All, in my experience, are poorly designed, UI-wise (part of this is simply the numerous minor variants, which is detrimental to all the others by their “nearness”, which can lead to muscle-memory errors). We should reverse this relationship to merchant providers. I should pay via my merchant provider of choice. Paypal is already nearly an example of this – I create a Paypal account as a customer, hook it up to my personal banking info, and use it where I can. Where the problem lies is that the merchant ALSO needs a Paypal account. & this needs to change. WHO I pay with should be my choice, who you get paid by should be yours. Like your bank vs my bank.
  4. I should be able to automate this. For many things, payments are standard, predictable: I’m going to get a coffee every day. My lunch at the same restaurant is going to be similar. There should be a way for how I pay to learn what I pay, and offer to automate that as I go. So next time, I don’t even need to pull out my phone to pay. It just happens in the background – perhaps when I order, or when I leave, or batched, later on. An invisible transaction, but trackable through reporting.
  5. I should be able to geo-fence/technology-fence rules & limits. I use 1 card online. Another at “questionable” places, another is my “normal” card. But if I had a system that knew an online payment from an offline one, knew that I shop here regularly, or this place is new, that could ask for an immediate confirmation when I’m somewhere new, or suddenly travelled 2000 km in 10 minutes, or whatnot – that adds security. And this fencing should be simple, and again, personalized.

There’s likely others. I’ve spent a fair bit of time toiling away on items 1,3 & 4. Item 3 occurred to me only after I got nervous when a local convenience store got a new debit machine from a company I didn’t recognize, with a merchant provider listed in a language I didn’t read, and the payment took 3 (load) dial-attempts before it connected. & likely I haven’t thought this all through. But – here’s the thing. With current technology & connectivity, all of this is already possible. I should be able to have this right now. So where is it? Let’s build it.

Comics

I buy comics. A fair amount of comics. I’ve drastically cut back my spending these past couple of years, but the fact remains is that nearly every week of the year, I’m buying 3 or 4 issues. And they make me happy. Every few weeks, for the past 15 years, ever since I moved to Vancouver, I head down to Golden Age Collectibles on Granville st. There, they’ve put aside the comics I collect in a “saver”. When new series come out, I add those to my list. This is an incredible way to shop. Comic shop sales-people have a bad rep (see: The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory), but in my experience, they’re some of the nicest retailers I know: they get  customer service. If an author or artist I like has a new book coming out, I’ll often find the first issue of that series in my saver even though I didn’t ask for it, because they think I might like it. When I lived in Toronto, I went to the Silver Snail, using the same saver system.

I used to buy physical music. But I started ordering CDs online as soon as Amazon delivered to Canada, and never looked back. I never had a single local supplier of music. & when digital music became a viable option for me, I mostly stopped ordering CDs at all, and never looked back.

I used to buy physical books. A lot of books. When I first moved in with Leah, I believe the boxes of books were more in both weight & volume than the rest of my possessions combined. & I tried to support local, indie booksellers. But in the end, I started ordering online because it was easier. But I didn’t have a single source for books ever since Bollum‘s at Granville and Georgia closed, and so I never looked back. & now I only buy digital books – mostly Kindle, but the occasional iBook thrown in for good measure.

And while I’m bummed about the loss of bookstores & music stores, I never had a connection to any of them. I started reading some digital comics when I got the first iPad. The app sucked, the interface wasn’t great. But you could tell this was where things were going. But now with the new iPad (3), the retina display means that comics could potentially look as good, or better, on screen than they do in print. And there’s no storage issue. I have boxes & boxes of comics, stored in the basement that I don’t know what to do with. Sometimes I go and re-read old series. I hope someday Liam or Kellan might like to. But I don’t want to keep adding to the pile, particularly as I move to a new place where storage is at something of a premium.

And so, I’m likely going to start subscribing to a lot of the series I like digitally. Sure, I’m locking in to some DRM scheme, but I’m ok with that. The convenience of digital subscriptions current outweighs my dislike. But I’ll  be sad about not going to buy comics from my local. I’ll miss their recommendations. And I’ll be sad if/when they close. I don’t know how much the memorabilia/collectable trading card portion of the store brings to their bottom line. But I think the time is coming, in the very near future, where I won’t be buying physical comics anymore.

And I’m sad about that. & I suspect that I’ll miss an ephemeral, but important part of my cultural landscape in a way that I didn’t with books or music.

User Control over the Granularity of Location Services

I use a lot of location services on my phone: when I tweet, more often than not, I include my location. I love geo-tagging my photos, so I generally include my location when using instagram, Hipstamatic, etc. & I regularly check in on Gowalla & Foursquare. So I’m not averse to sharing my location in general. I actually quite like it. That being said, I often wish I could be less specific about where I am. I don’t think it would be too hard to add a little slider, or some interface, to provide some scale.

By default, we send data for a point. But what if I could choose to send data at a variety of scales: point, neighborhood, city, region, province/state.

I suppose the particular use-case for this to avoid sending the exact location of my house – I do it, somewhat inadvertently, but I could imagine not ever wanting to do it. But still, letting people know that I am currently in South Vancouver (neighborhood), or Vancouver (city), or Lower Mainland (region), or BC (province/state), rather than my location within 100 metres should be perfectly acceptable data points – and gives me some control over the specificity of my data points.

In the above example, it is up to the app developer to provide scale/fudge-factor options. But we could abstract this farther, and make it a device-wide setting. My phone, via GPS, can always tell where I am. What if I could, device-wide, say “When in these areas, broadcast my location with much less specificity. That way, when I’m actually at home, it could automatically just send, say “Vancouver”, rather than my location. And by letting me choose where I want to reduce specificity, I still have the control – I set it up in my settings or preferences.

I suspect there’s a variety of implementation details that I haven’t really thought through, but I do think that this is an issue that if not the device (/OS) makers need to address, than app-developers do. Let me participate in location services, but at my security level – not what you’d ideally want. It’s a users-first approach to location, rather than data-first.

Snowy england by train

I wrote this yesterday while on the train from Paddington to Cardiff Central. Written on my iPhone, and now, posted from my iPhone. I feel like I’m entering a bold, dangerous new world of mobile-blogging. None the less, here’s my thoughts as I travelled yesterday:

England is impossibly lovley in the snow – the hedge-lined country lanes, the church spires spinkled with white, the near-invisible sheep & cows dotting the hillside as I rush past on the train. Even the nuclear power plant, curiously sandwiched between a cow pasture and what appeared to be and abandoned quarry appeared almost mythical. I could easily imagine Jack Frost and little sprites, or perhaps even Puck dancing along the rim of the towers kicking off little swirls of snow, laughing in the sunshine.

I wish the train were slower and the windows cleaner so I could take photos, but the experimental shots I took resulted in a blurred white smudge covered in brown dust.

Also, so much for the much-ballyhooed weather delays in England due to snow. The train from Cambridge to London arrived early, the circle line ran on schedule and here I am on a train to Cardiff, admittedly not my originally scheduled train as it was cancelled, but we are ahead on schedule, shortly approaching the Severn tunnel.