Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Google Wallet roll out.... without Google Bucks

It's about five years ago that I discovered, by accident and curiosity, that Google Payments Limited had applied for an e-money license at the FSA. Ever since, people have been wondering how Google would enter the payment space. Would they offer a wallet with virtual cards or would they issue their own new virtual worldwide currency (googles, googlets or gees)?

In good tradition, Google started out doing field tests with the wallet (which would sit in the mobile phone) and announced this in May 2011. The wallet was to contain your credit-card cards as well as a google-pre-paid card. And payment was possible with Paypass while the wallet would also facilitate the savings of loyalty-points. The card information was stored in the Secure-SIM-element in the phone and they experimented quite a bit since then.

So where do we stand now?

Well, the Google Wallet is now being rolled out and the Google development team sent out this video to further explain the wallet concept and roll-out. The most important change is that they decided to move the card-information to the cloud. This allows the Wallet to be used both via Phone and via the Web, with all your card details and important digital documents (ID's, transit pass etc) residing in a safe digital environment. So their distribution model for the application is now changing to making APIs available so that merchants and issuers can easily integrate the Wallet in their site/services.

As such, we can thus see Google moving into an integrators role, rather than a payment instrument issuer role. In fact, at some point in time, the company thought about issuing Google Bucks, according to Eric Schmidt, but abandoned the plan. The concept would consist of a “peer-to-peer” money system by which users seamlessly transfer cash to each other via a hypothetical application. However, various laws about currency and money laundering in different parts of the world made this too complicated to realize.

For now, the peer to peer payments in the Google Wallet are no longer on the agenda. And from a historical perspective (see my other blog) I think it is a good choice. Yet.... one of the developers did mention on this subject: it's impossible for now, but stay tuned for some announcements in the future.

So, are we still in for a surprise here?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Bit instant to introduce 'bitcoin'-card...

As you may know I am somewhat sceptic about the underpinnings of Bitcoin (see my previous posts), but the system does keep innovation going. Bit-instant for example is a company that helps consumers convert money into bitcoin and vice-versa. And such services are surely helpful in bringing more reach to the system.

Bit-instant is apparently now planning to bring a debit-card on the market, in two months time, that marries the bitcoin and money world even more. In this article here you can find a link to an IRC chat with Bit-instant, in which it announces its plans. It also provides a link to the picture of the card, showing a QR code that can be used to quickly deposit bitcoins residing in other applications to the card-account.

Now as I understand it, it is a regular worldwide ATM/Payment card. And it looks like it allows bitcoin to be deposited on the card balance. But essentially the bitcoin holder can ask Bit-instant for a conversion of some bitcoins to money and this money will then be deposited on the card balance for payment. By also printing the bitcoin identification on the card the concept very much looks like bitcoin is entering the card-market. And certainly to the user it will feel/look that he can pay with his own minted bitcoins.

In reality this is a very smart introduction of just another card in the market. It's a variation of the regular co-branded card where now we don't see a soccer club, automobile club, but the bitcoin club appearing. Still, it's another innovation worth exploring, so let's see where this card will take us.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The art of Reserve Banking (at the Zuidas Amsterdam)

Reserve Banking is an art. While Draghi and Bernanke are highly qualified and professional economists, they must also master the art of performance. As true actors, they use their voice, their remarks, eyebrows and somewhat vague statements to provide hints and indications that the market then swiftly responds to. It is something you can't learn from the books. It's an art that can only be mastered in practice.

Since this year, the Zuid-As in Amsterdam is also home to the art of reserve banking. But it's a bit different. I heard about it yesterday, when visiting the Holland Financial Centre. From high up in the nearby Symphony building I looked down onto a small rectangular area of the Art Reserve Bank, well fenced, with cameras and three small office buildings. One is the minting press, the other is the teller and the third one was hard to identify. It looked like this:

The Art Reserve Bank: an experiment
What happens there is a unique experiment. A group of artists have set up, without any monetary funding, a so-called Art Reserve Bank. The plan was there for some time, but as the financial crisis came along, it became easier to convince sponsors to join a project that questions the value basis of money. The main idea is that there is far too much money circulating in the world and that the crisis demonstrates that we need a new approach towards money and debt. And in the experiment, art (or: the intrinsic value of human artistic expression) becomes the money. And thus helps to freshen up or minds and stimulate us to re-think our concept of money.

The idea is that for a period of five years, each month 400 coins are minted. These are 4 series of 100 coins per week, costing 100 euro each. For each month: a different artist is asked to design the coins, which all bear the same backside with the motto: ARS PECUNIA MAGISTRA: Art is the teacher of money. A nice motto and also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Amsterdam Zoo that bears the motto: Natura Artis Magistra (Nature is the teacher of Art).

Anyone can buy coins and thus becomes a member of the Cooperative Art Reserve Bank (Kunstreservebank). All holders of the coin are thus the collective owner of the bank. Of the 100 euro costs, 90 % is used to pay for the operational cost of the experiment and 10 % is withheld as a 'cash reserve'. Should a buyer not appreciate his/her work of art, he can return it to the bank and get the original value back with a 10% interest fee. There is also a dealing room on the site of the bank, for those who wish to buy or sell their coinst. And at the end of the five years, all owners of coins can collectively decide what will happen with accumulated capital (if there is any and if the bank stil exists).

Money, dreams and art
The experiment challenges one to consider: what is happening in our world of money and value?

For me, the Art Reserve Bank made me realize that there may now be so much difference between their coins and the official legal tender in circulation. Both coins are the product of our imagination, dreams and creativity. Which is quite clear for the Art Reserve Bank currency, but may be less clear for the euro. So let me try to explain.

What happened over decades is that we moved from a mentality of: save first, spend later, to a mechanism of: spend first, repay later. If your story about the future would be probable enough (having a job, education etc) some bank would lend you money. And the same thing was true for businesses. Essentially this is a mechanism where tough choices are made. If you don't have the job or a solid story explaining how you can repay in the future, you don't get money. Which all sounds very realistic.

Fact is however, that with hindsight we can now see that banks, consumers and companies have on a large scale lived in dream worlds with expectations of future income, growth that were not realistic after all. Money was created, lent on the basis of these dreams and imagination. And part of that money is now in our pocket. And we also know that some of the debts are definetely not going to be repaid in the future.

So wouldn't it be fair to state that some of our euros are just as much the result of our imagination, as the Art Reserve Bank coins?