Edge of Innovation

Are universal cards like Coin and Plastc the real future of mobile money?

 

Credit cards haven’t changed much since the late ‘60s. But after four and a half decades, those little rectangles are finally facing stiff competition from tech startups looking to reduce the number of cards we carry in our wallets to only one.

That day can’t come soon enough: Between credit and debit cards, gift and loyalty cards, ID cards, and other widgets, the average consumer’s wallet has become fat and bulky.

Store multiple credit cards on a single device

Coin made headlines in late 2013 with the announcement of a universal card replacement, allowing consumers to store multiple pieces of plastic on a single device. It looks and feels like a traditional credit card. But on the front, a button switches easily between your stored payment methods, while a small e-ink display shows the card type, the last four digits of the card number, and the card’s expiration date.

Coin universal smart card
Coin feels like the future of money and it’s less of a technical jump than wireless mobile payment systems like Apple Pay.

For only $50, Coin clones the magnetic stripe on existing cards using a card reader plugged into the microphone jack of an iPhone or Android smartphone. After confirmation with a temporary charge to each account, up to eight cards can be synced to Coin using a secure Bluetooth connection. (An unlimited number of cards can be stored in the mobile app.)

Coin rival, Plastc, supports Chip and PIN payments

After failing to launch as planned last year, Coin began shipping beta units to the company’s earliest adopters. That unfortunate delay turned into opportunity for competitors, with no fewer than three other startups planning to launch rival devices in the coming months.

There’s Wocket, which comes with a card scanning pouch and a universal smart card to replace the cards you load in. But one of the more promising is Plastc, a costlier ($155) card with additional features like a full touchscreen display, support for NFC and “chip and PIN” payment systems, the ability to store up to 20 cards and 30 days of rechargeable battery life. (Coin is designed to be discarded after two years of use.)

Wocket Wallet
The Wocket Wallet consists of a universal card and a pouch-style scanner that can easily transfer your existing credit card details.
Plastc smart card
Coin’s delay has allowed rival card replacement devices to gain traction. The Plastc card supports Chip and PIN, which would make it ideal for a UK deployment.

Beta testers have been providing valuable feedback to improve Coin, and the company plans to implement those changes into the final product this summer, along with security features such as the ability to notify users if the card is left behind, automatically disabling the button from being used by other people.

Coin feels like the future of money – when it works

Our own experience has been mixed. When it works, Coin feels like the future of money. But when it doesn’t, you feel like a deadbeat having to dig a backup card out of your wallet. Coin worked at several retail stores, fast food restaurants, and petrol stations, but failed on nearly as many occasions, especially in restaurants with older POS terminals. (The company claims “approximately” 85 percent compatibility.)

On the plus side, card replacement devices already work at more locations than high-profile mobile money services like Apple Pay, although none yet replace driver’s license or other identification cards.

Until that day arrives, products like Coin and Plastc provide mobile payment convenience in a familiar and easy to use package — an attractive (and lower cost) alternative for consumers not yet ready to take the higher-tech plunge. — J.R. Bookwalter

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