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The Innovators Of Innovation

Talking about innovations in payments can’t be done without discussing the technologies behind the innovations that drove the industry in the direction it has landed at today. 

With the conversations shifting toward “the next big thing,” and focused on topics like mobile payments, online banking or cross-border remittances, there’s often not a lot of room to talk about the technology that drives all of these. And there’s even less time to talk about the technology that provided the platform that’s used by virtually every sector of the payments industry today to help them transcend the customer experience by offering options in-person, online and through an app.

This little innovation isn’t exactly what most likely think of when they think of innovations in payments, but there’s one key concept with a history attached to every payment technology known today. There’s that little triple W word that’s often forgotten about in the year 2015 when people are focused on asking “what’s next,” instead of asking “how did we get here?”

And that concept is a little something called the World Wide Web — the brainchild of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, now the director of the World Wide Web Consortium. It was Berners-Lee who developed the URL and the protocols and language that created the content platform that lives on top of the physical Internet. When we talk about the cloud, and all those things we access through it, we can thank Sir Tim. Sure, Berners-Lee won’t take any credit for the any of the payments innovation that followed or for that matter, for any other innovation that happened in the platform layer he created. But without him creating the Web platform, there wouldn’t have been many opportunities for anyone to innovate.

Berners-Lee was the featured guest speaker to kick off Innovation Project 2015’s panel of guests from the payments industry yesterday (March 18) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Berners-Lee spoke after MPD CEO Karen Webster kicked off the event that catered to payments innovators from around the world.

One thing that was clear to everyone who attended Day 1 of Innovation Project was that the concept of holding onto tradition is out the window as transformation and innovation has become the norm for the payments industry.

“No longer is it the case that the future of our industry is decided or even influenced by those of us who’ve been in this business for years might call, the ‘traditional payments’ players,” said Webster, addressing the crowd. “Instead, our future — our collective future — is being shaped by a number of ecosystems and platforms that are just as robust, just as complex and just as powerful. Ecosystems that are keenly interested in understanding the impact that payments can have on them — as we are in payments to help them explore what’s possible.”

Even Berners-Lee said he could not predict the evolution that’s happened from the Internet to the Web, noting that it’s been a fascinating journey watching the technology grow. He kept a modest tone about himself as he took no credit for what is seen today, despite being the man behind one of the biggest technologies ever created.

And when it comes to payments, Berners-Lee said a lot of the same standards that had to do with creating the Web for open use, like HTTP and HTML, so that people could create their own websites, should be the philosophy given to the payments standards in the industry today. He advocated for a standard payments API.

Berners-Lees said what the Internet did for individual companies was help grow gardens into the raging jungle that is seen today, and when looking at how that same concept can be applied to the mobile payments scene, Berners-Less said there is a blazing chance of opportunity to help grow those gardens and feed the raging jungle through innovation.

“Not everything on the Web is driven by money,” he noted, “but a lot of it is.”

Berners-Lee admitted that even he, who is often an early adopter to most technologies, hasn’t used his mobile device to make a mobile payment (he held up an iPhone to the crowd). But he did share his thoughts on checks. Spoiler: He doesn’t like them. Berners-Lee, however, loves the mobile check deposit option, noting that he’s shocked paper checks still exist in 2015.

“I love being able to take photo of a check instead of going to the bank,” he said. “The ridiculousness of the idea of a check becomes a lot more manageable if you can take a picture….I think it’s amazing they still exist [but] there’s still some bit of nostalgia about checks.”

So what does Berners-Lee, the man behind the Web, want in his payments experience? He wants it to simplify everything in his life by having it all on one device. That means the security key to get into the building, along with his credit cards and keys to get into his house — put them on that device he carries in his pocket, he says. But one thing he doesn’t want? His information stored in the cloud.

“Local is good. Start locally,” he said. “We should not rely on anything out there between me and my house. …The assumption that the cloud is the great enabler is dangerous to an extent. The assumption that everything needs to be connected to the cloud is not the right one. We should be directly connected. …There are a few steps we don’t need.”

He may not want to open up to the cloud, but Berners-Lee did stress when it comes to Web apps, there should be open standards to encourage a “healthy competition” among payments providers — which use different sources of protocols. Someday, he suggested, there won’t be so many boundaries.

So what does the future of payments innovations look like? Many innovators, like Berners-Lee, could throw their predictions into the payments ring of fire, but with changes happening to the industry in the blink of an eye (which may someday be a payment mechanism itself), payments, as an industry, is being disrupted, innovated and evolved. Just like the Web has changed since Berners-Lee created it some 26 years ago, the impact of yesterday’s creations will drive decision makers through the intersection of tomorrow’s innovations.

And we have the World Wide Web to thank. Thanks, Sir Tim.

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