October 29, 2014
We talked to Bill Maurer, director of the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion, while writing our new report, The Future of Payments & Currency. Maurer approaches the topic as a cultural anthropologist—he’s a professor of both anthropology and law at UC Irvine, where he is dean of social sciences. Maurer has particular expertise in alternative and experimental forms of money, payment and finance, and their potential to “challenge the definition and nature of money itself,” as he puts it. Currency is a “super exciting space right now,” Maurer told us, “and who would have imagined it to be so 15 years ago?” He discussed some of the disruption he’s charting, what he thinks will drive adoption of innovations like mobile wallets and bitcoin, and new consumer approaches to money and payments.
Americans have been slow to adapt the mobile wallet. Why is that?
We have an awful number of choices in payment, and most of the things we use to pay work. They are reliable, they are easy and convenient, and they’re pretty fast. So mobile payment in the States is a solution looking for a problem to solve, and the problem isn’t really there for most people.
Now when you think about Internet over mobile and new solutions for essentially what’s online payment but through the mobile channel, things start to get more interesting. There’s a lot more adoption of stuff like the PayPal app for use on eBay or iTunes over mobile than there is for any kind of mobile payment at the physical point of sale.
The other thing with mobile wallet applications is, a lot of them, frankly, stink: The user interfaces are clunky, and they don’t work reliably. I was at a big industry conference last year where a big product was being displayed by its CEO, and he went to show us how easy and convenient it is to use, and it wouldn’t work because it didn’t have a strong enough wireless signal.
The companies or the partnerships that crack the nut of their mobile wallet are going to be the ones that are find the secret to solving the physical-world point of sale. And again, that is just not a pain point for most American consumers. As an anthropologist, I can’t help but to point out that certain aspects of human behavior are extremely slow to change, and we’ve been carrying around coins since 600 B.C. These are very old technologies—it’s hard to disrupt them.