By Daniel Roth
February 22, 2010
A simple typo gave Michael Ivey the idea for his company. One day in the fall of 2008, Ivey’s wife, using her pink RAZR phone, sent him a note via Twitter. But instead of typing the letter d at the beginning of the tweet — which would have sent the note as a direct message, a private note just for Ivey — she hit p. It could have been an embarrassing snafu, but instead it sparked a brainstorm. That’s how you should pay people, Ivey publicly replied. Ivey’s friends quickly jumped into the conversation, enthusiastically endorsing the idea. Ivey, a computer programmer based in Alabama, began wondering if he and his wife hadn’t hit on something: What if people could transfer money over Twitter for next to nothing, simply by typing a username and a dollar amount?
Just a decade ago, the idea of moving money that quickly and cheaply would have been ridiculous. Checks took ages to clear. Transferring money from one bank account to another could take days, as banks leisurely handed off funds, levying fees nearly every step of the way. Credit cards made it a little easier to pass money to a friend — provided that friend owned a credit card reader and didn’t mind paying a few percentage points in fees or waiting a couple of days for the payment to process.
Ivey got around that problem by using PayPal. Since 1998, PayPal had enabled people to transfer money to each other instantly. For the most part, its powers were confined to eBay, the online auction company that purchased PayPal in 2002. But last summer, PayPal began giving a small group of developers access to its code, allowing them to work with its super-sophisticated transaction framework. Ivey immediately used it to link users’ Twitter accounts to their PayPal accounts, and his new company, Twitpay, took off. Today, the service has almost 15,000 users.
That may not sound like much, but it sends a message: Moving money, once a function managed only by the biggest companies in the world, is now a feature available to any code jockey. Ivey is just one of hundreds of engineers and entrepreneurs who are attacking the payment ecosystem, seeking out ways small and large to tear down the stronghold the banks and credit card companies have built. Square, a new company founded by Twitter cocreator Jack Dorsey, lets anyone accept physical credit card payments through a smartphone or computer by plugging in a free sugar-cube-sized device — no expensive card reader required. A startup called Obopay, which has received funding from Nokia, allows phone owners to transfer money to one another with nothing more than a PIN. Amazon.com and Google are both distributing their shopping cart technologies across the Internet, letting even the lowliest etailers process credit cards for less than the old price, cutting out middlemen, and figuring out ways to bundle payments to sidestep the credit card companies’ constant nickel-and-diming. Facebook appears to be building its own payment system for virtual goods purchased on its social network and on external sites. And last March, Apple gave iTunes developers the ability to charge subscription fees through their applications, making iTunes the gateway for an entirely new breed of transaction. When Research in Motion announced a similar initiative last fall at a session of the BlackBerry Developer Conference in San Francisco, programmers crowded the room, spilling out into the hallway. About 20 percent of all online transactions now take place over so-called alternative payment systems, according to consulting firm Javelin Strategy and Research. It expects that number to grow to nearly 30 percent in just three years.
But perhaps nobody is as ambitious as PayPal. In November, it further opened up its code, giving anyone with rudimentary programming skills access to the kind of technology and payment-industry experience that Ivey used to build Twitpay. The move could unleash a wave of innovation unlike any we’ve seen since self-publishing came to the Web. Two months after PayPal opened its platform, 15,000 developers had used it to create new payment services, sending $15 million through the company’s pipes. Software developer Big in Japan, whose ShopSavvy program lets people find an item’s cheapest price by scanning its barcode, used PayPal to add a “quick pay” button to its app. LiveOps, a call-center outsourcing firm, built a tool that streamlined payments to its operators, turning what had been a nightmare of invoicing and time-tracking into an automated process. Previously, anybody who wanted to create a service like this would have had to navigate a morass of state and federal regulations and licensing bodies. But now engineers can focus on building applications, while leaving the regulatory and risk-management issues to PayPal. “I can focus on the social side of the business and not on touching money,” as Ivey puts it.
PayPal is just the latest company to try to harness the creative powers of the open Internet. Google created a platform that lets anyone buy or display online advertisements. Facebook allows any developer to write applications for its social network, and Apple does the same with its iTunes App Store. Amazon’s Web Services provides developers the cloud-based processing power and storage space they need to build applications and services. Now PayPal has brought this same spirit of innovation and experimentation to the world of payments. Your wallet may never be the same.