How much technology can you fit into a 0.8-millimeter-thick credit card?
Last November, Coin offered a first taste of what was possible. The device promised to digitally hold eight credit or debit cards and let you choose between them at will. You could swipe Coin in any conventional card reader, and it would notify you if it had been lost or stolen using Bluetooth. Coin would have a two-year battery life, and a companion app that could hold your coupons and ID cards. But Coin still hasn’t shipped.
Today, we’re getting a second take at the "card tech" category with Plastc, which manages to bundle twice as many features into the same svelte form factor. Like Coin, Plastc syncs with your phone using Bluetooth. It lets you swipe between 20 cards or barcodes using an E-ink touchscreen, and offers NFC (like the iPhone 6) for contactless transactions, an EMV "chip" for the latest card readers, and RFID so you can replace your office building’s ID card. Even if you don’t know all the acronyms by heart, Plastc already sounds impressive. But there’s more.
You can put your wallet on top of an included charging mat to charge up Plastc overnight. (But if you don’t, it lasts 30 days on a charge.) And like Coin, Plastc includes various security measures, like a PIN code you must enter on its E-ink screen, and a requirement that you can only add cards with your name on them, which makes it more difficult to use for card skimming. And then there’s Plastc’s "remote wipe" mode, which can wipe your card when it’s lost, and the ability to show live card balances on its E-ink screen so you can check before you pay. You can pre-order Plastc today for $155 and ships next summer, though it's worth noting that I haven't tested a prototype of the device. Like with any crowdfunding or pre-order campaign, there's no guarantee that Plastc will come through on its promises.
APPLE PAY LAUNCHES THIS MONTH, BEATING COIN AND PLASTC TO MARKET
So, how much tech can you fit into a 0.8-millimeter-thick credit card? A lot, it turns out. But in the year since Coin was announced, the discourse in the mobile payments space has changed. Apple has announced Apple Pay, the first truly consumer-friendly NFC payments scheme that has both banks and carriers on board. According to some, Apple Pay is nothing short of a business miracle, and more "revolutionary" than either of the new iPhones. Pundits speculate that Apple Pay could even revive Google Wallet, which failed to convince both carriers and banks of its own plans years ago. Even Bill Gates sees it coming.
Unfortunately for Plastc and Coin, Apple Pay is launching later this month, beating both devices to market by a margin of several months or more. By the time Plastc launches next summer, Apple will be on the verge of launching its next iPhone, and then two generations of iPhone will support Apple Pay. Meanwhile, by October 2015, Coin will already be antiquated as American retailers are forced to buy new card readers to support EMV chips, which Coin does not work with. These new readers will also likely support NFC, which cements Apple Pay’s position. Plastc, notably, does work with NFC and EMV — which keeps the company safe for now, according to COO Ryan Marquis.
"Ultimately a cloud-based digital wallet will be the winner," says Marquis, "but with our technology, we can allow consumers to build a digital wallet using a form factor that they’re used to today." Marquis says there are still many use cases where we need physical cards like subway ticketing machines, ATMs, and gas pumps. "I will utilize Apple Pay because it’s simple and easy, but there are so many use cases in our world where I’m still going to need a physical card," he says. "There are so many things that point-of-sale machines just aren’t ready for yet."
If Apple Pay has caught on in a year, Plastc may already feel outdated. And that’s if Plastc can even deliver on everything it’s promised. Coin, after all, is months overdue after promising much less. But Marquis is right about one thing: after spending the last year testing a handful of new payments systems — everything from paying with a tiny magnetic fob to paying with your veins — I’ve come to realize that one means of payment won’t rule them all. You will always need a backup for when you lose your phone, or when your phone dies before last call at the bar. Plastc could be this backup, which might not be such a bad business after all. And if you haven’t charged Plastc for 30 days, it locks in your default credit card so you can still use it until you charge up again.
Ten years down the line, payments won’t live inside one app or one gadget. They’ll travel with us from context to context — they’ll have to, because you need your money no matter what technology you happen to be using that day. And Plastc’s betting you $155 that the old-fashioned credit card isn’t going anywhere — it’s just getting a lot smarter.