Blockchain – What is Permissioned vs Permissionless?

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If you have been following distributed ledger technologies (Blockchain), you would see the term permissioned blockchain being thrown around. What is the core difference between a permissioned vs. a permissionless blockchain?

A permissioned blockchain restricts the actors who can contribute to the consensus of the system state. In a permissioned blockchain, only a restricted set of users have the rights to validate the block transactions. A permissioned blockchain may also restrict access to approved actors who can create smart contracts.

Permissionless blockchain is contrary to what you read above – Here anyone can join the network, participate in the process of block verification to create consensus and also create smart contracts. A good example of permissionless blockchain is the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains, where any user can join the network and start mining.

Now you may wonder what the benefits and disadvantages of each approach are? In a permissionless world, you do not have to prove your identity to the ledger. As long as you are willing to commit processing power to be part of the network and extending the blockchain, you are allowed to play. Any miner who is playing the game by the rule may be able to solve the hash puzzle and verify the block of transactions to win the mining reward (Higher the mining power, better the chances of winning the mining reward).

In the permissioned blockchain world, you need to be an approved actor in the system to participate in growing the chain as well as building consensus. Many of the blockchain consortiums that build private blockchains for financial institutions and other enterprises follow this model.

One other critical difference between these two is the underlying mining model – permissionless blockchains use Proof of Work(PoW) mining where hashing power is offered to build trust. As long as 51% of the nodes are honest players, network consensus is reached. (Read about 51% attack here).  While Bitcoin uses PoW mining, Ethereum uses a Proof of Stake model (PoS) for reaching consensus.  Proof of stake mining asks users to prove ownership of a certain amount of currency (their “stake” in the currency). Instead of buying computers and electricity for mining in a PoW system, a PoS systems uses the capital to acquire the coins/tokens that allow you to validate transactions.

Permissioned blockchains do not have to use the computing power based mining to reach a consensus since all of the actors are known; They end up using consensus algorithms like RAFT or Paxos. There are also other PBFT algorithms that can be used to reach consensus without PoW mining.

Let us look at the topic of enterprise blockchains. Almost all of these piloted blockchains these days are permissioned. There are many reasons why this is the case:

  1. Privacy – using a permissioned blockchain allows only actors who have rights to view the transactions. A permissionless blockchain is ideal as a shared database where everyone can read everything, but no single user controls who can write. Imagine you are a large bank who uses a shared ledger with a list of other banking partners within a consortium – you do not want the volume of your transactions to be visible to your competitors.
  2. Scalability – A Permissioned blockchain can build a simplified Proof of Stake model to establish consensus; this prevents the proof of work by burning computational cycles. The ultimate result is scalability compared to a public blockchain network like Bitcoin. (See BigChainDB).
  3. Fine Grained Access Control – A Permissioned blockchain allows restricted access to the data within the ledger (See the design model underlying R3CEV’s Corda)

I want to highlight one of the most famous interviews by Bitcoin guru Andreas Antonopoulos – Sewer Rat and the Bubble Boy. When asked about “How are enterprise/private blockchains different from bitcoin’s blockchain?”, Andreas responded:

“The banks and the corporations say, “Oh, bitcoin’s awesome. We want that. Only without the open, decentralized, peer-to-peer, borderless, permissionless part. Could we instead have a closed, controlled, tame, identity-laden permission version of that please?”

It is an interesting argument where Andreas compares Bitcoin network to the Internet and the private blockchains as the secure intranet within enterprises. He compares them to the Sewer Rat and the Bubble Boy:

Bitcoin is a hardened platform because its security is tested on an everyday basis.

“Bitcoin is a sewer rat. It’s missing a leg. Its snout was badly mangled in an accident in last year. It’s not allergic to anything. In fact, it’s probably got a couple of strains of bubonic plague on it which it treats like a common cold. You have a system that is antifragile and dynamic and robust.”

Does this mean that the enterprise blockchains are the bubble boy?

 “let’s take bitcoin, cut off its beard, take away its piercings, put it in a suit, call it blockchain, and present it to the board.” It’s safe. It’s got borders. We can apply the same regulations. We can put barriers to entry and create an anti-competitive environment to control who has access. It will be more efficient than our existing banking system.

Eventually, successful, vibrant, innovative companies are the ones that turn their IT infrastructure inside out. In the future of finance, successful, vibrant, and innovative banks are the ones that turn their infrastructure inside out and make it part of an open, borderless financial system that serves the other 6 billion, that serves all the people who have been excluded from finance.”

I for one cannot wait to see how this whole debate will shape up the future of finance. The advent of bitcoin and blockchain and DLT technologies is a pivotal moment in the history of computing and technology. It will change the way of how we build systems of the future.

You can watch the full-text interview with Andreas here and the video of his talk here.

And the Fintech Country of the year award goes to…

If you are not following what is happening in India in the last few months, you will need to wake up and take a look. The demonetization effort launched by the Indian government has shaken this cash based economy to the core.

While everyday folks suffered a lot with trouble in exchanging the 500 and 1000 Rupee notes for the newer 2000 or older denominations, the mobile wallet scene in India saw a sudden interest and growth which was a fortunate side effect.

Companies like PayTM and MobiKwik have seen their user and transaction volumes skyrocket in the past few months. Here is a link to the Paytm growth numbers for their year ending 2016 which is crazy!

As a payments industry observer I find this growth fascinating. I can’t wait for the time when Apple would release its ApplePay numbers in open like this!

The folks in Daily Fintech have done a fantastic job in presenting the case of why India is the Fintech country to watch here in this article. Go check it out!

indian-map_1017-1589

You got heart, kid.

A lifetime ago I used to be a developer. I started coding when I was in 9’th grade with GW-Basic on an IBM PC which ran an Intel 8086 processor with 256kb RAM. I have to admit this was the most fun I had as a 12 year old and I was hooked. I pushed the boundaries of the GW-BASIC interpreter by using commands like Peek and Poke which the elders told me to stay away from. In short Peek and Poke let you do some wild things with the language like prodding the brain of the computer. However you start to realize that as fine as an entry level language GW-BASIC was, you can only push the boundaries to an extent. (Developing a hotel management system entirely using Random Access Files in GW-Basic that used its own custom index scheme to locate records using B-Trees was quite painful).

This was all fun and good, but taking a full day to run all of the month end accounting sucked. Enter dBase III plus and Foxbase which rocked my world for the next couple of years. As I graduated high school, I got introduced to sexy Pascal and finally C – the mother of all languages. (I did dabble in some 8086 assembly, but I figured I wasn’t a masochist and gave that up).

C taught me the discipline to code right. You do not take anything for granted. You could not assume you “freed” a pointer. Or that array you allocated had enough space to capture that crazy user input which will someday cause a buffer overflow. In my first paid gig at caterpillar I had to write a symbol table implementation that created a memory manager for strings in C. This memory manager wrapped the alloc() and free() to keep track of all strings being handled within the application (that automagically built a service manual for a giant caterpillar earth mover).

At this stage I was starting to explore C++ but it seemed like an abusive relationship. It just didn’t feel very natural and I wasn’t too excited to switch my primary development tool of choice at that point in time.  This is when a new kid on the block emerged- Java.

Java was touted as “Write once – Run Anywhere”. In fact, it was so hyped up at that time the whole world went crazy and tried to shove Java in places where it should not belong to. (I am looking at you Sony – for committing the crime of writing your entire blu ray spec/stack in Java which in my opinion is one of the worst conceived ideas ever).

Sean Bean Write Once.jpg

By the time the world woke up and got to its senses, enough damage had been done in the form of Java applets. However, the one saving grace that came out of this debacle was server side Java. While Sun Microsystems was busy in a pissing match with Microsoft and others, the enterprise application server market started blossoming with players like BEA  and IBM making good contributions on the Java Enterprise scene. (Remember the venerable pet-store application?)

Today, many of the commercial enterprise level applications and services are powered by software written in Java. The ecosystem and development tool chain are supported by a robust set of offerings by players like the Eclipse Foundation, JetBrains and Oracle.

Around this timeframe, the concept of n-tier application development hit main stream. Java borrowed some good ideas like MVC from Smalltalk and made it commercially successful. While Java did a great job on the Controller side, it did have some weakness on the Model and View side tools.  The native database support for Java existed in the java.sql package. Any database developer worth his salt would let you know how much CRUD code you needed to develop in order to get the backend model represented properly and it was quite the chore.

Enter ORM mapping tools like Hibernate. They simplified the idea of building models in a more natural fashion by taking away the complexity involved in writing plumbing code. Java took note of this and introduced these features as part of the core language as Java Persistence API in future releases.

While the model side of the world settled with solutions like this, the View on front end was not a pretty scene. Java server pages technology was the recommended way to build the front end of web apps. This was not a great solution in many ways as the graphic designers would mock-up HTML and Java developers would take this and translate that into backend code. In order to perform front end dynamic validations you resorted to Javascript.

Now Java developers always looked down Javascript as an inferior development language. There was a philosophical difference between Java as a strongly typed language v.s. Javascript, which was interpreted at runtime.  Javascript developers were called/treated as “script kiddies” and Javascript as a language was not being considered for any serious development (primarily due to its applications on the front end side in the browser).

This all changed in the last few years. A powerful set of libraries started emerging for Javascript and lot of serious development started to happen. With companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook committing to Javascript development, we started seeing some new unique tools and features which are making web experiences more engaging and realtime.

The pivotal moment for this development can be attributed to the advent of Node.js (a Javascript runtime environment that allows JS code to be executed on client as well as the server using Google’s powerful V8 Javascript engine). JQuery created and abstract layer on the front end end for Javascript which took care of many of the browser level rendering idiosyncrasies.

In fact so much development is being done for Javascript these days that there is a rich array of options a developer can choose from:

Web Frameworks: Angular JS, ReactJS, EmberJS, Meteor.

Front End Development – This list is long, I am hyperlinking it here.

Compilers – Babel, traceur

Build/automation Tools – Grunt, Gulp

Package Managers – npm, boweryarn

Mobile Cross platform Development – Sencha Touch, Phonegap, Ionic, Kendo UI, Mobile Angular UI, Intel XDK

Backend Development – Node.js, Express, KoaHorizon, socket.io, Redux,

Javascript Databases – RethinkDB, TaffyDB, PouchDB, LokiJS

I was quite amazed by how rich the Javascript ecosystem has grown. Javascript is the #1 language in github with the most number of active repositories and commits as seen here at Githut.

To summarize, I have developed quite the respect for the Javascript ecosystem. As Captain America said – You got heart kid!

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(Image Credit – Marvel Studios).

Digital Delight – How are you moved?

index-mobile2007 was a watershed moment in technology. The iPhone redefined the concept of personal computing and the world as we knew it was never the same. In just a decade, we have seen the proliferation of smart devices in every aspects of our life. We take for granted the various conveniences  offered by our smart phones.

However too much of a good thing can also create fatigue. Our smartphones are cluttered with apps which we download and use once or twice and never revisit again. Like a kid in a candy store, we hoard on apps and eventually get tired of it and settle on a few which truly make your everyday life easy. If you start filtering apps with this lens, I bet most folks don’t use any more than 10 to 15 apps in a repeating basis.

Apple and Google haven’t really done much to help solve this hoarding issue of the users. I have always thought a neat feature in an operating system level would be is to notify the user of an app dormancy – if I haven’t touched a thing in 3+ months, is there any possibility I would ever use it again?  Recommend a list of these apps which I can get rid of and keep my sanity!

At the end of the the day, the few of the 10 to 15 apps we use may not be the best of the best but they may serve a utility which we cannot live without. A good example would be apps published by your banking and credit card providers. I counted a total of 10 apps in my phone representing my banking, credit card and investment/retirement account providers.

A fellow Fintech Mafia member Alex Jimenez mentioned the other day that most of the mobile banking apps are online banking shoved into a small screen. I tend to agree with his assessment. In a race to keep the mobile apps in feature parity, most financial institutions are in a rush to port the kitchen sink into their mobile apps. While I appreciate the swiss army knife of a mobile banking app, we really don’t need 48 features in a form factor meant to engage you for less than a few minutes to take care of quick and important banking transactions.

A mobile banking product manager’s wish is to figure out what makes the customer tick. Everyone wants to build the next Uber of the banking service. However, to get the formula right to digitally delight a customer is not an easy task.

What is Digital Delight you ask?

Digital Delight – if an online or a mobile product/service creates a pleasurable moment that makes an experience just a little more fun.

How can we can introduce this digital delight as a product designer? Not all of the apps can be digitally delightful as Monument Valley the game (which btw still blows my mind!). Sometimes the opportunity lies in taking the most mundane process workflow and integrating that into an informative notification that can make a huge difference.

Case in point – Delta launched a new redesigned app with a feature to track the status of your checked in bag.

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(Image Credit – Delta)

From the moment the baggage gets tagged into the system, the Fly Delta app starts tracking the baggage in transit.  You get notifications that your luggage has been loaded into your plane. It allows you to see where your bags are at any point in time even using a satellite map!

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(Image Credit – Delta)

I want to send kudos to the Delta team for making an useful feature like this part of their app update. This is certainly one of those things where I was delighted to see in action. A nice video of this feature is available here.

What other apps surprise/delight you in this fashion? Share them in the feedback section below. As I see digital delights in the wild I will make sure I share them as well.

Happy New Year 2017!

Google wifi – Mother-in-Law Approved.

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I live in a three level home which is a terrible location for a wifi network to provide full home network coverage. Interestingly enough, the home I used to live prior was much larger but my good old 8 year old Linksys wireless N router never had any issues covering 4000 sq.feet between two levels. When I moved to the current home I live now, I chose to have my cable modem installed at the basement level (which was a terrible mistake). The walls of this home seem to have lead in it which almost makes the home sorts of a Faraday cage killing the signal strength on the top level.

Hence started my quest to find a router that worked across all three levels.

Setup 1:

My first move was to buy a cheap router (D-Link) and use it as slave to my primary Linksys router at the basement.  I decided to buy a NetGear Powerline Adapter  to extend the Ethernet connection to my third floor and then use the D-link router to setup a slave network. In theory this sounded fine, on implementation a few issues arose. I had two distinct wifi networks in my home and I had to switch between networks as I roamed around. Not to  mention the fact both the Linksys and D-Link routers had dual-band radios for 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz, so I had 4 wifi networks in total!

Why can’t you disable one of the radios you ask?  Well the 5 Ghz does extremely well for short distance applications (like streaming Apple TV) while the 2.4 Ghz radio crosses walls better. To make things more interesting, I had the 5 Ghz radios in Wireless-N mode while 2.4 Ghz band operated in Wireless G/B mixed mode to provide compatibility to older devices at home. (As crazy as it may sound, an average home these days can easily have more than 20+ wireless devices considering all of the the cell phones, tablets, SMART TVs, Laptops, Media Players, Smart Home Assistants like Alexa, refrigerators etc).

Setup 1 worked OK for a while but I was getting mysterious signal drops on wifi when I was in the slave network on the third level. The connection would randomly freeze and I would have to reset the wifi radio on my phone to get the connectivity back on. I was not sure what the culprit was. By process of elimination, I could tell the basement Linksys router was working OK and the slave D-Link upstairs was working fine as well. (I swapped them and the problem still persisted). This made me conclude the culprit may be the NetGear Powerline adapter (which uses the home electrical connectivity as an extended wired Ethernet network).

To test this theory out, I bought a TP-Link Nano Ethernet Poweline adapter to see if  it solved the problem. After swapping it with the NetGear, the problem seemed to have gone away for a few days and then it was back again.

House 1:  Me 0.

Setup 2:

Based on lessons learnt on Setup 1, I realized there may be a hidden electrical goblin in my house  wiring eating my IP packets. I started exploring alternate options like wifi extenders which technically extend the same wifi network across a bigger area. I ended up buying the Amped wireless extender and connected that to my basement Linksys router. While this seems to have marginally solved the problem, I was still having intermittent issues with connectivity dropping randomly which was quite frustrating. After a 2 week trial run, I returned the Amped back to Costco.

House 2: Me 0.

Setup 3:

By now I was starting to think the issues may be with my Linksys router which did not have a firmware update from Cisco in 4 years.  I started researching new routers. This is when Google got into the router business and launched their OnHub router with the help of TP-Link and Asus. OnHub was google’s first foray into home networking business. The OnHub was supposed to solve all of the coverage issues. I was ready to cry tears of joy and drove to BestBuy to pick it up on Day 1 when it was released.

OnHub ended up being a huge disappointment. Since it was a router on its own respect, I replaced the basement Linksys with the OnHub. The setup was super easy with a smartphone app which configured all the settings which was very cool (compared to the legacy admin consoles hosted at 127.0.0.1 in your older routers). It was definitely very  user friendly but ultimately failed the important test of not being able to have the range to penetrate the lead-laden walls of my house to the third level. I mucked around with various settings in vain. However the best speed which I was able to get on the third level was a measly 750 kbps. No YouTube or Netflix streaming while I was in bed.

House 3: Me 0.

Setup 4:

OnHub was promptly returned after 3 days of testing as it didn’t quite cut it for my needs. At this point I was fairly disillusioned with fancy new routers and did more research to find the holy grail of routers. After reading many reviews on The Wirecutter, I finally decided to give the Archer C9 a try. The Archer C7 was rated as one of the best router  (for most people) by The Wirecutter in the market. I picked up the Archer C9 from Costco. The added bonus was it came with a range extender which worked out of the box.

The Archer C9 seemed to do OK on most of my testing and has been my primary router for the past year. The extender would take the same wifi network name, so I did not have to keep switching networks as I moved around the house. However I did notice a little bit of lag in streaming speeds on the third level. It worked most of the times, but sometimes it would make me reset the wifi radio in my phone to get it to work again. (By now you may have realized that turning wifi on/off has been something I do at least a few times in an average day and over a period of four years it gets mighty annoying. You ultimately give up and accept it as  price to pay to have a wifi connection – I keep reminding myself of pre-wifi days during when I went and bought a 100 meter Ethernet cable 12 years ago when wifi was not a common concept!)

House 3.5: Me 0.5.

Setup 5:

Recently I came to know about a new concept where a new breed of mesh networked home wifi equipment that have been popping up in the home network scene. Most prominent of those were NetGear’s Orbi, Eero Home wifi, Luma Home and Google Wifi.

I stayed away from making a leap into this scene as these equipment were all quite pricey. (Typically more than $400). However when I watched the Google Hardware event on October 4’th, I was blown away by some of the things Google launched/announced. They had a wide range of products from Pixel Phone to VR goggles and then Google Wifi. Watch this video starting at minute 50 to catch the Google wifi announcement. The pricing seemed reasonable for the three pack unit starting at $300. I decided to give one final shot and preordered the Google wifi from Amazon.

I received Google wifi 3-pack today and opened it to perform the setup. The packaging was very apple like. There was just a quick start card inside along with the units and power cords and an Ethernet cable. Very simple and spartan. Following the quick start instructions, I downloaded the Google wifi app on the app store and started the installation process.

I setup the circular hockey puck looking units (a little larger than that) at each level in my home. These devices are beautifully designed and blend into the environment. The bottom of the devices have the SSID of the unit and a password to connect to it (Note: You will only use this SSID and password during setup).

Setup was a little confusing to start with. The App was attempting to connect to an unit without asking me to join to the SSID broadcast by the base unit. I had to manually switch to phone system wifi settings to connect to the SSID of the base unit. At that point, the setup app took over and asked me to name the location where I placed the unit (basement) and asked me to also name the home network.

Once I did this step and the network was created, the app asked me if I had more Google wifi units. I had two more units I needed to setup. The app again went on a wild goose chase trying to locate both the units. I had to now switch to phone wifi settings to identify the unit by name on my family room. Once I connected to this unit using the user id and password at the bottom of the unit, the app took over again. This time the app recognized it as a peer unit and configured it part  of the home mesh network.  I repeated the same steps for the unit on my third level and it connected to the network like a charm. I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized all of the three units were part of the mesh network and were under the home network SSID I created when I setup the first unit.

Now to the acid test. Speed Test app blazed through on all three levels with speeds consistently exceeding 70 Mbps.  I tested the speeds while I was stationary on all three levels. Then to put the system to the test, I started a Speed Test and moved around the house where I knew the connectivity would be weak. Impressively enough I could see the speeds slowing a bit on dead spots but the mesh network came to rescue with another unit picking up the signal seamlessly and I could visually see the speeds normalizing to the 50 Mbps and above threshold.

Finally I think I have a winner with Google wifi!

The best part about this is I hope I do not have to keep resetting the wifi to stream YouTube on my visiting mother in law’s iPad which is worth its weight in gold!

Home KO:  Me smiley

 

2015 is *not* the year of Mobile Payments.

mobilepmnt

There, I said it. It’s an inside joke amongst the payments industry folks to guess which year might be the year when Mobile Payments finally becomes mainstream. It may seem with the highly promoted launch of Apple Pay, we may have finally put a rest to the claim that 2015 is the year when mobile payments finally hit mainstream.

Maybe Not.

For all intents and purposes I feel Apple Pay, with its marketing momentum, managed to make the general public take notice of mobile payments. However, with Apple finally decided to get into the ring, it managed to make the other failed efforts combine forces together to finally put up a fight. I see the playing field with four major players.

  1. Apple Pay with NFC
  2. Google Wallet with NFC (Android Pay?)
  3. MCX/CurrentC/PayPal/Paydiant Wallet
  4. Samsung Pay (With Loop’s MST and NFC)

Each of these players have their own strengths to polarize the market in their own way. Lets dive in!

ApplePay:

Strengths: Best User Experience for making mobile payments in the current landscape. Pioneered the concept of tokenization and biometrics to provide a new easy way to pay. Brought all the payment networks and banks to execute a near textbook perfect launch.

Weaknesses: Merchant Adoption. As we see more merchants adopting NFC enabled terminals (and the EMV liability shift in 2015), the number of locations where you use Apple Pay will grow. However, don’t expect to use Apple Pay in your neighborhood Walmart anytime soon.

Not having any rewards programs to brag about is another limitation with Apple Pay.

Add to this the other side of Mobile phone pie, the Android user ecosystem who zealously hate anything Apple Makes. These folks will never use Apple Pay, no matter what.

Opportunities: As more of the newer iPhones get sold, Apple Pay will gain traction and people will try it atleast once to see how this works.

Threat: Industry analyst Cherian Abraham has been blogging about the fraud activities generated by ApplePay. Even though none of this has anything to do with the security measures Apple put in place in designing Apple Pay, the soft underbelly of the whole scheme is the Yellow Path for provisioning cards for users. Banks were forced to launch AP without much time to account for this newer security threats and that may slow some of the momentum.

My take: I would equate the launch of Apple Pay to Tesla’s Model S launch. Both were revolutionary products in their own respect. They broke the convention in their areas where common wisdom dictated that it could not be easily done. However, any first generation product there may be some quality issues which may get ironed out as future versions are released. Apple Pay is surprisingly a solid offering for v1 and it can only get better.

2. Google Wallet with NFC (Android Pay?)

I don’t even know where to start with this. Google Wallet has languished forever mostly due to Google’s approach in not building partnerships with the players in the field. Finally the stars aligned for Google Wallet after the Apple Pay launch and lit up the much needed fire in their back to get their act together. Google was able to broker a partnership with Softcard and provide its new wallet offering as an API.

Strengths: Launching Android Pay as a payment API (See Sundar Pichai’s remarks here) is a wise move. This allows Google to open up the API to device manufacturers and developers to build wallets which may result in mainstream adoption. Apple’s walled garden approach would have never worked for Google in the first place. Android has a healthy user base in US who may try this service.

Weaknesses: Design by committee never produces mind blowing user experiences. Apple Pay set a very high bar(See Tim Cook launch Video here). I cannot imagine how the Android Pay UX can be any simpler than this given the fact that it has to work on a multitude of devices made by different manufacturers. The rev. share scheme Google has promised the Telcos to pre-install Google Wallet in newer handsets sounds like something which needs to be vetted after product launch to see how successful it may be in the long run.

Opportunities: Android has an 80% worldwide market share (source). With an open API approach, Google is betting on sheer volume of its users to make this a success. When you thrown in enough magic potion in the cauldron, you never know what may come out 🙂

Threats: Not having the first movers advantage sometimes may come back and bite you. Apple Pay was able to alleviate this shortcoming with an amazing UX. With Android’s open model and fragmented ecosystem, the success of Android Pay may not be imminent. If history is any indicator, the ARPU(Avg. Rev. Per User) for Android is one quarter of iOS users (according to Benedict Evans analysis here).

My Take: Android Pay maybe late to the party but it surely provides an alternative for Apple Pay. How successful this may be is something we will have to wait to see.

3. MCX/CurrentC/PayPal/Paydiant Wallet

Its hard to analyze a wallet only a few have used in Beta. However, the PayPal acquisition of Paydiant came as a surprise and caught most of us off guard. We well knew MCX was working with FIS/Paydiant to use their QR code technology to payments. The QR-Code premise was very promising when all of the industry pundits declared NFC dead (including me). Add some Apple juice and suddenly we see a re-animated NFC becoming the de-facto payments standard.

The QR-code method of payments is still not bad. We use it in Starbucks everyday and most people do not have any issues paying using QR-Codes. However the entire premise of CurrentC wallet which tries to remove payment networks from the picture (atleast in the first iteration) seems like a dicey proposition for a successful launch.  From a consumer point of view, I do not understand why a customer would be motivated to link their bank accounts to save interchange fees for a merchant.

4. Samsung Pay (With Loop’s MST and NFC)

Talk about bad timing and possibly some buyer’s remorse. Samsung acquired LoopPay which would provide out of the box support to use existing POS terminals using the Magnetic Secure Transmission technology. While many rumored a marriage between these two companies could have provided a great mobile wallet in Samsung phones, this comes a year too late. With the EMV liability shift fast approaching, many merchants are upgrading their terminals. The concept of swipe as we know may go the way of dodo pretty soon. (This reminds me of Blu-Ray as a technology. I wonder how many people still buy Blu-Ray players now that streaming is becoming the most preferred way to consume content?)

Naming this technology as Samsung Pay is also not a great move in my opinion. For the hardware chops they have, Loop technology could have been made into a hardware chip which Samsung could then sell to any of the device makers thereby securing their investment and guaranteeing a longer shelf life with strength in numbers . With Google announcement of Android Pay API, I am just not sure how Samsung would promote their offering when they will also have to install Google Wallet.

Conclusion:

So, I hope, my dear reader, if you have come this far, you probably know how big of a cluster is the current mobile payments landscape in US. I don’t even want to imagine the free technical support we have to provide our families and relatives once every one of them gets their hands on a pay with a phone thingamajiggy. So good luck.

For my money, I can surely bet 2015 is not the year of mobile payments 😉

UX fails – even Apple is not immune.

I am amazed for all the brain power Apple has in its engineering team, they still manage to provide bad user experience in some cases. General consensus in the industry is Apple Hardware and Software just work together and delight the user in ways which we would not imagine.

Not always.

Allow me to elucidate.

Back in 1990’s the biggest frustration I used to have as a gamer was not able to fit the massive games ( > 5MB) into storage media like floppy disks. (I made myself look like a dinosaur, I know!). MS-DOS and Windows had a nasty habit of not letting you know how much space is available before you start a copy process and would miserably fail half way through.

Fast Forward to 2015. I am using iOS 8.1.3, the world’s most advanced operating system ever (I didn’t say it, Cook did). All I did was try to shoot a video of my 6 week old smiling using my 64 GB iPhone. The camera app was recording the video and right when the baby was starting to coo and cackle, I get this nasty error dialog which said my device ran out of storage space and the recording was stopped. (Thank the lord, it did record some of the footage).

I just don’t understand how the world’s most advanced operating system, cannot provide a word or warning when it starts running out of space. It doesn’t have to be an automated nag, but having a visual clue on the camera app which shows how many pictures are possible or how many minutes of video can be recorded with the available space would be a good visual clue.

Go ahead and highlight that in red when you are running out of space to let the user know that they don’t have enough space to record baby video and its time to delete that Angry Birds V1 app which is taking up close to a GB of space.

And while you are at it, why not give some more smart recommendations like the age/usage of apps on the phone? If I haven’t touched an app in months and its taking up valuable storage space, maybe its time to provide some advice to the user to delete that bloat.

What are the other UX annoyances you face with your favorite Device/OS?

PS: If you are frustrated with other OS annoyances, this Quora Thread has a laundry list of things which iOS sucks at.

http://www.quora.com/What-are-the-best-examples-of-poor-Apple-user-interface-design

UPDATE: Just a few minutes after I publish this post, I see this news about Apple working on revamping the stability of their OS  – Good news!

Apple’s iOS 9 to have ‘huge’ stability and optimization focus after years of feature additions

Paypal needs to leave 1998 and move on to 2015.

I rarely use PayPal. The only times I use PayPal is to buy from Internet merchants who I have never dealt with before. I never use their money movement feature. That being said, a couple of months ago I decided to add a new bank account to PayPal.

A typical way to setup a new bank account for ACH is utilizing the trial deposit method of account verification. With this method, the entity which likes to make the ACH linked setup, sends two micro trial deposits usually less than a dollar to the bank account and asks you to verify this amount. This process takes typically a day or two due to the underlying limitation of the ACH technology which uses batch files in this day and age to settle transactions.

Recently a newer way to verify bank information has been floating around – this is called Instant Verification where the entity (like Paypal) utilizes the online banking login information to confirm if you really are the owner of the account you are trying to link. I have used this method in a few places and 99% of the time, unless you are trying to link to one of the big banks, this never works. (In which case I fallback to the trial deposit method).

So when I set up a new funding bank account with PayPal using this new Instant Verification method, I was surprised to see it was able to connect to a small local credit union account. However I realized a few months later, instead of linking the checking account, PayPal ended up linking the savings account. (Disclaimer: I am not sure who screwed up here, PayPal or the aggregator they use or my credit union’s core system).

During holiday shopping season I used Paypal a little more than normal. This ended up deducting  from my savings account (which didn’t have much balance on the first place since this bank account is purely used for everyday spend).

At one point, the savings account over drafted and PayPal hit me with a $20 fee for the failed ACH transaction (even though I have a backup credit card setup within Paypal to fallback in the event of ACH failure.

Transaction from my bank on 12/23:

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 8.09.45 AM

Not wanting to deal with PayPal’s customer service, I decided to remove this bank account from PayPal and just leave it only with a credit card as funding source. When I try removing the bank account, I get an error message that “You have a pending transaction – you cannot remove this bank account”.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 8.10.40 AM

I give PayPal a full 5 day window and try removing this account and I got the same error message again. To add insult to injury, I can’t seem to locate the $20 fee or the Pending transaction within PayPal Account Activity Section.

Here is PayPal’s account history where you can’t see the $20 fee or a Pending transaction:

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 8.16.16 AM

I even tried the Ugly Sister version (Classic Site) of PayPal to see if this Pending Transaction and hidden fee are visible – no luck.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 8.18.32 AM

I can’t believe PayPal, a massive platform with so many customers would suck so bad on User Experience. I wrote to PayPal Customer Service, lets see what that response would look like 🙂

Update 1 on Jan 1, 2015.

PayPal sent me a generic email about how to add and remove bank accounts when I specifically asked them to remove a bank account. Auto Responders are not cool – especially when you deal with customer’s money.

I tried moving some money from the PayPal account to my bank account. It seems like the transaction went through but this is the confirmation screen I got after the transaction. I got an error message to check my card details followed by a big green check mark possibly indicating that the money transfer was initiated. What does this even mean?

Screenshot:

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 2.37.36 PM

To facilitate this move, I had to increase my monthly transfer limit. PayPal cleverly suggests that we add another credit or debit card to do this. I added a new card to increase my limit. PayPal charged me an amount of $1.95 to validate if the card really belongs to me. In the transaction memo they embed a 4 digit code which needs to be used to validate that the credit card belongs to me.

Once I finished adding the card, I got a realtime mobile SMS alert from my FI and I added the 4 digit code to confirm that the card was mine. After that I was able to move the money from PayPal to the bank account. However, when I viewed the account register again, instead of seeing a credit and a debit for the $1.95 which PayPal posted, I see two credits to my account. SMH.

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 2.47.15 PM

Does this company even do any Quality Assurance Testing on the code they push to production?!?!

Clash of the Titans

Today I was in a day long meeting and did not have a chance to follow the Fintech activities in Twitter. However, this shaped  to be one of the interesting days where two Fintech friends who I respect decided to dish it out on the Future model of Banking.

My good friend Bradley Leimer did an excellent coverage on this issue with quotes and links from American Banker’s original article followed by Ron Shevlin’s commentary which was followed by a rebuttal from Jeanine Skowronksi.

I have to say I am very much in agreement with Leimer’s analysis. However, I still personally feel strong about some of the points Ron made and some which Jeanine did.

The way we see olden days of banking are changing. It is like getting into an airplane and expecting a three course meal. (Maybe in business class you still get it, but I fly coach). Its good when you get upgraded and get a taste of this excellent customer service. However, due to the nature of how banking is changing and evolving, the good old days of banking as some might reminisce may be a thing of the past.

Like every other person out there, I would like to be treated well by a customer service associate. Almost all banks provide decent customer service when you walk into a branch. Question here really is will this old fashioned human interaction be replaced with automated servicing tools.

Most folks are starting to agree that a service interaction which can be simplified like depositing a check can be easily fit into a self service channel which customers seem to adopt and like since it saves them time whereas they are more inclined to use the branch for complex financial transactions.

Not to beat this to pulp, I think the original bankthink article showed one view point of a specific customer journey of her banking expectation. Ron was correct to point that it is an outlier scenario which may not jibe well with general populace. At the same time, I also get Jeanine’s point that there are still a whole lot of customers who place so much value in human interaction and walking into a branch to get their financial needs serviced.

Is the glass half full or half empty ?  Depends on how you see it 🙂

Mobile Payments – Are we there yet?

Mobile Payments is the hottest topic in the market now. If you are following the payments industry you would be pleasantly surprised to see the amount of interest in this area from various players which include Financial Institutions like Banks, Card Networks, Processors, Telecom providers, Silicon Valley Giants,  small payment startups, retailers and pretty much everyone you can think of.

It’s all Steve Job’s fault:

The iPhone for all we know started a mobile revolution where upgrading the latest OS firmware is something you see customers discussing at coffee shops in the morning. (Did you upgrade to iOS7? I hate the color themes. I am still at iOS6 and love it!). Not to digress too much, but the iPhone opened up a cottage industry of all the things you could do with the device and Google couldn’t sit there and let Apple have all the fun. Thus Android was born (which opened up its own industry of phone makers). The latest browser stats show Chrome and Android browser leading the pack in usage while Firefox, IE and opera losing market share.

Facebook was fun with mobile, so was Instagram, Twitter and all the lifestyle apps which “made” you more productive. It was quite natural  that mobile devices evolved to add payments as the next killer app – except the existing payment initiatives in mobile have quite underestimated one fact.  The customer didn’t find the idea of paying with a plastic card too hard on the first place. What is the mobile wallet value proposition? Just replacing the leather wallet with a mobile wallet app which can store payment and other credentials does it for customers?

The mobile payments landscape is quite fragmented with a lot of confusion of what really constitutes the ecosystem. Here are the major categorizations:

Mobile at the Point of Sale (Pay using your phone)

–Consumer payment method utilizing NFC, QR Code etc.

–Google Wallet, ISIS, Square Wallet, PayPal Wallet

Mobile as the Point of Sale (Accept payment with your phone)

–Merchant utilizes mobile device to process transaction(POS)

–Paypal, Square, Intuit, ProPay

The Mobile Payment Platform

–Broader mobile payment  platform, typically a mobile wallet

–Utilizes NFC, Cloud, QR Code, GeoLocation,  GeoFencing and Proximity

–Google Wallet, PayPal, FIS Paydiant, Level Up, Dwolla, Square

Direct Carrier Billing

–Purchases made via mobile phone – charged through wireless carrier

–Zong, Boku, Mopay, Any Telco issued payment app.

Closed Loop Mobile Payments

–In-store only transactions

–Utilize QR codes, Proximity payments

–Starbucks, Level Up, Square Wallet, PayPal (Closed Loop Offers)

What does this mean to the average consumer on the street who wants to pay with their mobile? A lot of confusion.  Most of this arises from the fact that there is no standard way to make a payment from the phone.  If the GPS technology we use on the phone was similar to what we have in mobile payments today, we probably won’t have most of the location aware apps which make our lives easy(Maps, Yelp, Offers, FB, the list goes on). A good Fintech friend (Matt West) once said he will validate the success of any consumer technology if his mom finds it easy enough to use. Do the Mobile payments solutions today pass the Matt West’s mom test?

What is the primary issue in adoption?

Really the primary issue here is – Do you want one wallet to store all your credit cards and hope that the POS terminal merchant has a way to recognize it? Or do you want to have individual closed loop solutions like Starbucks Mobile app? (Rated as the #1 mobile payments app).  An average customer would probably have certain shopping preferences of where they would shop. Existing usage trends have shown that customers download and use Starbucks app and Target RedCard app  more due to their  richer closed loop experience.   A generic mobile wallet can still be a attractive value proposition in locations where they shop infrequently (A gas pump for example).

In a twitter conversation I had with Guillaume Lebleu and Brad Leimer about payments Guillaume mentioned the idea that The mobile wallet is your “transaction browser”, something you’ll use for transactions you don’t have a dedicated app for.  I agree with his idea of having dedicated apps for most frequent use and have a generic payment wallet for merchants who do have a native app combined with a wallet.  Brad mentioned the fact that there should be a unified backend to make payments simpler.

Integrating Mobile Payments at the Mobile OS Layer:

A truly well thought out mobile wallet would arise only if the major mobile OS players decide to build that as part of a new payments API.  Currently these providers (Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft) have provided ways to do in-app billing(mostly used for games and digital subscriptions) but to my knowledge they do not have a way for a closed loop wallet application to securely process a payment. All of these successful closed loop systems have their own cloud based payment/auth mechanism which are custom built.

Unified Payments API hooks:

If the mobile OS can provide a payment API hook that an app can utilize, retailers can build their version of a closed loop rich app similar to Target or Starbucks that can be customized with their specific offers and loyalty programs. To make something like this to work, the mobile OS has to provide a payments API infrastructure which is present in the cloud (and not on the device). This may use the Secure Element or shouldn’t have to. It can store most of your wallet information in the cloud and let you manage the cards in the cloud (Similar to Google Wallet or PayPal). This card on file information can be represented as a secure payment token within the mobile device (not the actual card details themselves, but a reference to the card in the cloud store). In case of Apple, this could be iCloud, Wallet for Google, Xbox Live for Microsoft.

When a retailer built closed loop custom app wants to utilize payment information,  it requests access to this wallet from the underlying OS. (Similar to how they now request permission to use your GPS, Microphone etc).  The OS provides a list of payment methods to the app which can be selected by the app’s payment handler (either set that card as a default mechanism or allow to change payment as required). If the workflow is built with the right hooks for extension, providers like Wallaby can inject value by recommending the the most optimal payment card which maximizing the user’s loyalty options. (Eg. Use the Discover card at electronics store to get 5% cash back type schemes).

An app built in this manner can enrich the in-store shopping experience  by providing a view of the full inventory. What if an item you are looking for is not in that store? The mobile version of the retailers app may allow you to order and pay for it from the app and have it shipped to your home directory. The primary difference between what we have now in the likes of Amazon and iTunes app is, the customer gets to store more than one primary card on file, as well as have the liberty to choose where their wallet will reside and the OS will secure the storage and provide a uniform way to access payment apps within its platform.

Generic Wallet: 

Many consumers may still find the generic mobile wallets like Google Wallet, ISIS, PayPal and Square quite attractive for their usage patterns. Any merchant who may not have a closed loop scheme can decide to be part of one of these generic wallets to accept mobile payments. Even these generic wallets can start utilizing the underlying OS Payment API hooks in a similar fashion explained above. Google Wallet already has a great way to inject Offers and Loyalty programs for merchants who decide to go through this route using their Wallet Objects API.  Other players are offering their own way of launching these value add-ons to the generic wallet.  (Level Up  has launched its white label, PayPal  with its Beacon, Dwolla with its POS payment option).

So who gets to manage this cloud wallet?

This is an interesting question. The payments landscape is big enough to accommodate more than few players.  Some people are comfortable with their Banks storing this wallet information. Some are comfortable with Apple, Google, Paypal, Amazon handling this cloud store. Some may trust Visa/MC/Amex/Discover with this function. This will once again be a turf war where once you get locked into an ecosystem of Apple or Amazon or Google, you may decide to stay with them due to the convenience factor.

The next generation Payment API/Wallet?

Add the ability to store Bitcoin and other alternative digital currencies in this infrastructure and we maybe truly looking at a next generation wallet which can be the payment wallet of the future.  A lot of innovation is happening at the payments space and its a gold rush. The OS providers wield a considerable amount of power by acting as the gatekeepers of mobile commerce which are facilitated through the mobile devices used by consumers. As long as they can keep the payments functionality simple and pass the Matt West’s Mom Test, we should see mobile wallets playing an integral role in the future of payments.

The latest Android edition (KitKat) has released with new Host Card Emulation (HCE) feature which is a great first step in providing OS level integration for Payment apps. Read more about it here.

Update 2:

Cherian Abraham has done it again with an excellent analysis of Android/Google’s strategy on HCE. You can find it here.