Payment distancing: Apple and Google, we need our cashless society even more in pandemic times

If the two mobile device giants can cooperate on COVID-19 contact tracing, they can absolutely cooperate on moving money around.

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In January of 2019, almost fifteen months ago, I wrote an opinion editorial on ZDNet about the Internet of Human Things. The premise was that the traditional wallet, with cash and plastic credit cards, was outdated, was rife with security issues, and it needed to die.

The wallet's replacement, I argued, should be RFID implants, which would contain all information essential for our daily financial transactions, as well as all the critical IDs and access cards we need to carry with us. RFIDs would also include the tokens needed to access our cloud-based medical history, and replace our house and car keys. In a truly cashless and card-free society, we would never need to leave the house with anything but our smartphones and smartwatches.

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A radical solution for yesterday's world

RFID implants, I acknowledged, were perhaps too radical a step for most of us to embrace. An intermediate step toward this goal would be to implement this same technology on wearable devices and in our smartphones. But to do this, we would need better cross-vendor support for electronic payment systems.

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Last July, I heralded the Apple Card as the next best thing to having an RFID implant, as it could be used for virtually all financial transactions -- provided that Apple also invited Google to the party. 

Both of these articles mostly fell on deaf ears. At the time, nobody was interested in giving up their cash and plastic cards. Who would want to use this new technology when the old way was so much easier, so much more accessible?

The new and harsh reality of paying for goods and services during the coronavirus

How things have changed.

It's April of 2020, and we're living through a global pandemic. For the most part, we are stuck in our homes, practicing social distancing. While delivery services are an option for some of us, there are times when at least one member of the household has to go out to buy critical food and supplies. That's currently unavoidable for most people.

The very idea of interacting in-person with a retail terminal, having to touch buttons or hand over a plastic credit card to another human being -- potentially inviting infection even if both parties wear gloves --- is a psychological anathema to many of us. Even the NFC technology that Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay use are still too close for comfort, as you might have to violate social distancing guidelines for the data transfer to work. 

Often, in a retail or a restaurant takeout scenario, the payment terminals where the NFC function exists is very close to the employee executing the sale -- and to start the transaction, it may require interacting with a physical or virtual keypad. It isn't always seamless, and in some cases, when the terminal doesn't work correctly with NFC, you have to pull out a credit card or cash anyway -- therefore requiring human contact.

Contactless and remote financial transactions now seem to be the preferred way of going about things. When I pick up food at a restaurant or go grocery shopping, I want to pay businesses without touching anyone or touching anything that was possibly touched by someone else. I also need to be able to pay other people directly for services or simply IOUs. 

Google enters the financial services space, but it won't interoperate either

I use an iPhone, which is great if I want to use Apple Cash, but what if the other person uses an Android device? I can't pay that person unless I use a third-party solution like Cash App (Square) or Venmo (PayPal). But those alternatives have transaction fees involved, or they aren't easily bank integrated. If I use those solutions, I cannot see the transactions under a single pane of glass as I do with Apple Card, which is my primary financial transaction mechanism now.

That's neither practical nor user-friendly. And in addition to no built-in cross-platform payment solution on the two mobile platforms, there is no B2C Apple Card or Apple Cash solution either. I have no way to pay my landscaper, my pool maintenance guy, the dog groomer, the air conditioning guy, or my house cleaning services unless I pull out a physical Apple Card. To pay these services, they need to have a credit card terminal app with an accessory to swipe the card. Alternatively, I must give them the card number, expiration date, and CVV. 

All these less-than-ideal workarounds defeat the security advantages of having that virtual card and a virtual wallet. Can I reset the card number if it gets dinged without my permission, and someone decides to engage in fraud with it? Sure, but now that action breaks every damn online service I programmed to bill it. 

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More often than not, because these services don't carry credit card processing in the field, I end up having to cut physical checks and stuff them in envelopes. That means handing someone something or having them touch something I touched. The coronavirus has now made the most mundane payment scenarios anxiety-inducing.

Over the next few months, Google will roll out its version of an Apple Card-like solution with its banking partners. Great. So now Android users will presumably have all the same functionality that Apple Card owners have, with a consolidated, categorized and itemized charge view, a cash rewards program, encrypted transactions, and more. 

But will they be able to pay Apple Card and Apple Cash users? Can Apple Card/Apple Cash users pay Google Card/Google Cash users directly through Messenger and vice versa through Android Messages? Nope. It doesn't sound like it.

A solution needs to be created now

With the COVID-19 crisis, we are going to need to be able to solve these interoperability problems. It will go beyond mobile platforms as well. In essence, there needs to be a single e-payment interoperability standard. It should be developed with the full cooperation of Apple, Google, Samsung, the online vendors such as Amazon, other major technology firms such as Microsoft, and the retail payments processing industry that merchants use in restaurants, supermarkets, drugstores, what have you. 

For initiating a transaction within safe social distances, RFID should be used in the next generation of smartphones and wearables like Apple Watch, and whatever Google decides to build now that it owns FitBit. 

But in the interim, and for in-person interactions, there needs to be a solution developed that is cross-platform that will work using RCS or via a communications protocol developed explicitly for payments to work with these e-wallets. 

It should ideally be implemented via open source and open standards in any operating system and via a consortium established by the tech giants and the retail payment processing firms. It has to be something universal, and anyone should be able to pay anyone else using it, regardless if it is a mobile device to mobile device, from consumer to consumer, B2C, or B2B. 

Something like Zelle could be a solution, as it already has the major banks behind it, and it can work via text messaging and seems like it's relatively easy to enroll from a consumer experience perspective -- but it needs to have full platform integration for it to be completely seamless.

If Apple and Google can cooperate on COVID-19 contact tracing, they can work on moving money around. Talk Back and Let Me Know.