Mobile Payments: A Solution Still Searching For a Problem

Lots of people are skeptical of Apple's new mobile payment system. Neil Irwin is one of them:

The core challenge Apple faces is that buying things with a credit card isn’t nearly as onerous a process as they make it out to be.

Mr. Cook showed a video at the product rollout of a woman burrowing in her purse for a credit card, navigating past a box of Tic Tacs — Tic Tacs! — and struggling to open her wallet in order to find her card, then being asked to show her driver’s license before completing the transaction. It had a lot in common, actually, with those infomercials in which actors manage to horribly bungle the most basic tasks until some new product solves a nonproblem.

This strikes me about the same way as those old Visa ads about the horrors of paying for your bottle of spring water with cash. You monster! How dare you impede the march of civilization! But just as cash is, in fact, pretty easy to use, Irwin's core observation is that paying with a credit card is pretty easy too, especially for low-dollar purchases that require only a quick swipe. Using your mobile phone doesn't really provide much of an advantage.

But wait! Maybe credit cards really do pose problems. Because I'm a grumpy old man, I often find myself muttering under my breath at the supermarket checkout line. Why? Because there's someone ahead of me who apparently has never used a credit card before to pay for anything. They wait until the entire purchase is rung up. Then it suddenly occurs to them that they'll be required to offer payment for all this stuff. Then they retrieve their card. Then they stare at the card reader as if it had been designed by Martians. Then they stare at it some more. Then the checker tells them to push the button that says "Approve." Etc.

This is annoying to people like me who are easily annoyed. But here's the problem: will mobile payments make things better? I guess it's possible, but my 30 years of experience with computing devices doesn't make me hopeful. How likely is it that people who still have trouble with card swipers, which have been around for decades, will be seamlessly waving their iPhones around with no problems and no breakdowns? I dunno. Maybe Apple is the company that can finally make it happen. But until I see the real-life evidence, my guess is that it will be about as seamless as trying to teach people how to change the privacy settings on their Facebook account.

There really are issues with credit cards as payment devices. They're fairly easily stolen and they're pretty insecure. Still, these things are relative. As long as you use a credit card instead of a debit card, you're not responsible for most losses, and various forms of modern technology have made credit cards much more secure than in the past. And as Irwin points out, they're pretty easy to use. It's just possible that the Steve Jobs reality distortion field could have convinced everyone otherwise, but I'm not sure Tim Cook is up to the task.