If one were to ask the average person if 2009 feels like it was a very, very long time ago, odds are the answer you would get is “no.” At a quick glance, the world we live in today seems to be more or less similar to the world we lived in then.
And sure, insofar as the world has avoided any major cataclysms or apocalyptic events in the last seven years, it is mostly the same place. But if one zooms in for a closer look and reflects on the world we live in now versus the world we lived in then, it becomes clear that maybe they aren’t quite so similar after all.
It’s been a reflective week around the PYMNTS offices, as Oct. 20 marked the seventh anniversary of the launch of PYMNTS.com. Some things have not changed. The most common question we got back when we launched remains the most popular question among new friends who find the site:
What happened to your vowels?
Our answer, incidentally, also hasn’t changed in seven years: It’s all about friction. Why type two extra letters when the word itself really doesn’t need it? You see, we’ve always been about reducing friction.
But many more things have changed, including the second most popular question we are asked.
“Why are you so focused on innovation and what’s next? Isn’t what's next in payments making the plastic card look cooler and spiffing up the points or the amount of cash back you get when you swipe it at the store?”
“OK, so can you please tell us ‘what’s next in payments and commerce’ — and do that, like, yesterday?”
We can’t lay claim to making payments innovative and a topic of global conversation, but we can lay claim to consistently — and uniquely — telling the stories of how that innovation is changing, disrupting or transforming our world and who’s driving those changes. It’s a change we observed based on our work with many of you in the early 2000s when we saw the power and potential of mobile, the cloud, the internet and data to rock our respective world.
Seven years later and, in many ways, it’s a very different and exciting world. Don’t believe us?
Well, step into our not-so-way-back machine.
Payments may not have been an obvious choice for a window into the world of innovation in 2009, since most consumers and businesses thought of payments more or less as a generic utility like electricity — and more or less infrastructure. Swipe card at merchant, it worked 99.999999999 percent of the time and everyone went on their merry way.
ECommerce existed, of course, but wasn’t devouring physical retail’s lunch that noticeably yet. Amazon was making the transition to being the internet’s leading seller of all things — but most consumers thought of it as the place to go to buy books and electronics and not internet’s commerce big-time disruptor.
The smartphone, of course, had hit the market but was just a baby. The iPhone 3G was the top-selling phone of 2009, and it was the only pure, touchscreen-only smartphone on the market. The remaining top 10 phones were almost all smart (or smartish) phones, but this was still before all smartphones were designed to look like iPhones. As of 2009, Android phones mostly had slide-out QWERTY keyboards, because BlackBerry, though in decline, was still the central visual reference point that early Android designers were using for phones.
And the app stores that dominate those phones today were still an essentially new concept. The Apple App Store was only a year old in 2009, and Google launched its app store in 2009. Notably, the version of it that exists today, Google Play, was still four years away from existing.
And speaking of not existing…
Enjoy paying with your phone at Starbucks and racking up those loyalty points in free drinks? Feel like you’ve been doing it your whole life? As it turns out, on the first day you could read PYMNTS, you stood in line and paid with cash or a card at Starbucks, because that mobile payments platform was still two years in the offing. In 2009, mobile payments was the pet project of financial services enthusiasts and technologists that were convinced that the smartphone was about to change how all of commerce functions.
And the early signs, believe it or not, were all there.
Square launched in 2009 and, with it, set loose the concept of bringing small merchants nationwide into the card payment rails by using a simple add-on dongle to a smartphone.
A smartphone, mind you, not a tablet. The iPad was not yet in the market — that wouldn’t come until 2010. In fact, one of PYMNTS first interviews was with Square Founder Jack Dorsey about the infinite possibilities in innovating payments and commerce going forward.
Amazon Prime was not quite the force of commerce nature it is today. It was out there in 2009; in fact, by the time we launched, Prime was already four years old. And it was quietly picking up market share and convincing consumers that getting their goods shipped in 48 hours was vastly superior than finding a parking space at the mall at Christmas.
And, of course, there’s Uber — the little ridesharing service that changed how people think about payments, car ownership, labor and the future of the mobile economy almost in the blink of an eye. Uber wasn’t quite the Uber we all know today back then, but it was clear almost from launch that Uber had done something truly unique with mobile technology, payments and how to combine them into a brilliant and infinitely replicable consumer experience.
It was the beginning of a new way to think about a lot of old ways of doing things.
We have written before about how, from the point of view of someone from even the mid-20th century, the world of 2016 would more or less resemble the Jetsons — minus a flying car or two, but with the robots.
But it is so easy to get used to mobile innovation. Ordering and paying for coffee ahead is, for an increasing share of Americans, just how one buys coffee, as surely as swiping a card or pulling out a $5 bill was just how it was done seven years ago.
Consumers think nothing of browsing on their phone for what they want to buy on the commute home, buying on their tablets while sitting in bed with a glass of wine and then picking up said item on the way to work the following day at a store location. Increasingly, that’s just how commerce is done, whether one is shopping at Walmart, Target, Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus.
When surveyed, 40 percent of Americans claim to go to church every week as of 2016, whereas almost 50 percent report being Prime customers (that was less than 10 percent when PYMNTS launched). The fact that Amazon Prime is more frequently visited than a house of worship, literally, means that, these days, everyone wants their own membership program.
Ah, Alexa — another player that had not yet even been speculated about in 2009 when we launched. These days, it is playing a starring role in the development of the digital ecosystem. “She” is not alone, of course; 2016 has been the year that the AI personal assistants have come marching in (Siri, Google Home, Watson, etc.) to begin the process of helping consumers tie all their disparate digital identities into a single unit that is ready to traverse all the parts of cyberspace and physical reality with equal ease.
Uber is everywhere, no one has a phone with a QWERTY keyboard and everyone’s new favorite tech question is about how long they will have to wait for a car that will drive them places.
Yet, there are a number of things that haven’t quite made the progress that everyone had hoped. Seven years later, we’re still sorting out what will transform the payments experience in-store since mobile and contactless still really haven’t. We’re still using paper checks to pay people and businesses, and disturbingly, their use is increasing. We’re still trying to figure out the best ways to stay steps ahead of the fraudsters and protect consumer data online. And we’re still fighting some of the same old battles over some of the same old issues.
We could go on, but the point is made. The future is here, and no one asks us why we care about payments innovation anymore, because there is no one left seriously involved in payments or retail or financial services or commerce who doesn't realize how important that innovation is. You have to know what’s next in payments, or you won’t understand what’s next in innovation in the connected economy as a whole.
But no reason to fret. We’ll be here, helping you separate the signal from the noise so that your focus is on the part of what’s next that will define what’s next for you and the customers you serve.