Users of Apple's iPhone can now send each other money, direct from the Message app, thanks to a service called Circle. Money can be sent in euros, dollars, pounds, or—of course—bitcoin, and comes straight from your bank account, without any fees. Now it's easier to pay somebody your share of the lunch check with an iMessage than it is to pull out your wallet and count the cash.
With the recent update to iOS 10, the Message app—formerly called iMessages—can now run smaller apps inside itself. These let you do things like add stickers to your messages, or send your current location, or look up a GIF and send it without leaving the app. Circle, an already-existing money-sending app and service, has now added a Messages "extension" that lets you access it as you send a message. You just spin the dial to choose the amount, pick the currency, and hit send. That's it. You can even send to SMS/MMS customers who don't use Messages, and if you send a payment to an Android phone user, they get a link that imports the payment to their Circle app.
To use the service, you have to give it your debit card details—no credit cards here, because the money comes straight from your bank account. Received payments can be added to your own bank account, or to a blockchain-compatible digital wallet. You can also keep a balance in the app itself, which turns it into a kind of digital wallet of its own.
Social payments are already big business in China, but elsewhere, even almost-cashless societies like Sweden, we're still catching up. The Swedes can make payments to each other using an app called Swish, even using it to make donations to the local church, but it is slow catching on. Payments in messages however, could be huge.
The hurdle faced by services like Circle is trust. I created an account to test the service, but stopped short when I had to add my debit card details. I'm not happy giving an unknown service access to my bank account. Perhaps this problem will be solved by Apple itself. Apple already has payment details for its millions of customers, so it's a short stretch to it integrating Apple Pay into its products to allow social payments. The other advantage there would be that nobody would have to sign up for a new service—anyone with an iPhone could receive payments without doing anything.
There will be other privacy problems when we go cashless, though. Nobody can track cash, but your mobile payments leave a trail. And mobile payments, if connected to a bank account, leave the unbanked out in the cold. This is a real missed opportunity, because poorer people are less likely to have a regular credit card, but also more likely to use a smartphone as their only computer. Social payments, then, would be perfect for the poor.
All of this is unlikely to matter in the end, because the convenience of mobile payments will trump all security concerns for most people. Circle might be the first to offer them inside iMessage, but it certainly won't be the only option for long.
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