The slick video above is for a just-announced San Francisco-based startup called Coin, whose stated goal is to build products that “simplify, improve, and fit seamlessly into your life.” In this case, the product is a smartphone-connected payment card with a magnetic strip that can change instantly to mimic up to eight other credit or debit cards. That means you can swipe it on any old credit-card reader and it will work just like your bank-issued credit card would. To use a different card, instead of fumbling through your wallet, you flip through photos of all your cards on the Coin iPhone app. The card syncs with the app via Bluetooth.
Whether you find this delightful or terrifying probably depends on two things:
- Whether you suffer from Jason Alexander wallet syndrome
- How comfortable you feel consolidating all of your bank accounts onto a single strip of plastic
Coin tries to address the second question with a security feature that disables the card when it’s not near your phone. But Quartz’s Christopher Mims argues that introduces the same problem that mars other digital wallets:
In those odd moments that you find yourself with a dead phone battery, it ceases to function. That might not happen so often, but think of the times it might, and how they’re precisely those moments you would most want your credit cards to function: Late at night, when you need to pay a cab, tow truck, restaurant bill, or whatever else you need to get you back to a place where you can charge your phone again.
That does seem like a drawback, but I don’t think it’s fatal. People are already so reliant on their phones that they’re terrified of letting the battery run low. If you want a safeguard, why not keep just one physical credit card in your wallet as insurance?
One other thing to know about Coin: Because it uses magnetic strips rather than smart chips, it's aimed at the U.S. audience for now, and may not work in other countries. The company says that will change in future versions.
To me, the only real problem with Coin is that it feels like a stopgap technology, like those CD-changer cartridges that were popular for a little while before everyone switched to mp3s. Replacing eight cards with one may lighten your load by an ounce or two, but is that enough to convince people to take the leap of faith involved in adopting a new payment system? Even early adopters could be forgiven for holding out for a more comprehensive digital wallet—the kind that will let you pay for everything just by tapping your phone, or perhaps some other, even more seamless gesture.
On the other hand, many have tried that, including Google, and they haven’t made a lot of headway yet with consumers or businesses. Coin’s CEO, Kanishk Parashar tells The Verge’s Ellis Hamburger that he thinks a stopgap solution is exactly what we need right now. The success of Square’s digital credit-card readers, which also make use of what's already in our wallet, “inspired him not to shoot for the moon too soon,” The Verge explains, “and instead try to reinvent a tool people already knew how to use.”
Here’s to incremental progress.
For those interested, you can pre-order Coin for $50 here. The company expects to start shipping next summer.