Dystopian Pingit from Barclays cannot win

The Financial Services Club Blog has an interesting piece on Barclays Pingit:

http://thefinanser.co.uk/fsclub/2012/05/case-study-barclays-pingit-for-consumers-and-corporates.html

Pingit is the new service from Barclays that runs on iPhones and Android. In order to use it, you need to be a Barclays customer.

Barclays Pingit is growing fast. They have over seven hundred thousand users. They are using the PayPal “recipient becomes a user” as a way to spread the service. This is a fascinating trend, and they probably have so many initial users because they were able to target existing account holders directly in the branch or through the post or other points of contact to offer them their new free app.

Pingit is very interesting for anyone interested in Bitcoin, banking and liberty, for several reasons, and it is a bad product for anyone interested in the future of money transfers over devices that is beneficial to the users. Look at the onerous and invasive sign up procedure you have to go through to use Pingit, and you get a taste of what that service is all about; arbitrary controls and restriction:

As a non-Barclays customer you have to go through a very complex account verification process that involves not only a PayPal like penny drop into your current account with a reference number that you need to enter; but this is followed by a letter to your house via snail mail with another verification number.

More on this in detail below. None of this ‘account verification’ has anything to do with the utility of the product, how it works, its security or anything else. If Barclays did not have to do this, Pingit would be on the phones of seventy million people, not seven hundred thousand. And this is a very good thing, because once a service becomes entrenched it will be hard to displace it.

Or maybe not.

Everything has changed in the internet mediated world. Pingint might have seven hundred thousand users today, but there is nothing to stop another app developer creating a product that sits four millimetres adjacent to it on your iPhone’s home screen that does a better job without any nasty restrictions or requirements.

Pingit users could then move their money into that app and then never open Pingit again. Think of it as similar to MySpace users migrating to Facebook, and of course, all the people who are un-banked and who do not live in the UK are also on the same internet with the same mobile phones that Pingit users are on. The market for these users is bigger than the population of the entire UK. On this basis alone it is clear that Pingit will eventually reach an upper limit that is a subset of the UK population. The field is wide open to disrupt and capture the money on mobiles market, and the winner will not be Barclays Bank.

Imagine the following scenarios. Barclays doesn’t like what you are doing on your mobile phone. They can unilaterally or by order of the State, freeze your account and disable your Pingit access. They have total surveillance of every transaction you make, on both ends, to whom, when and from whom. Their 4,123 word long terms and conditions include the following arbitrary restrictions:

  • You need to be 16 or older to use Pingit.
  • You can send £1 or more but not less than £1.
  • You must have a UK current account.
  • You must give them your UK mobile number.
  • Pingit can reverse payments at any time.
  • There is a maximum daily limit of £300 for payments.
  • The payment can be made only once the Payee has registered for the service.
  • There is a maximum daily limit of £5,000 for all payments received through Pingit. Barclays will refuse to process a payment if it exceeds the arbitrary limit.
  • Barclays places arbitrary restrictions and limits on how you use your Pingit account.
  • Users may not be able to install or use the app on a jail-broken or rooted device.
  • You may not attempt to derive income from the use or provision of the service, whether for direct commercial or monetary gain or otherwise.
  • Pingit can refuse to process a payment if they believe that you have not met any of the conditions.
  • You must authorise Pingit to display the full name of the account and your mobile number to the payer when they input your mobile number into the app.
  • Depending on the information you provide when registering, Barclays may require you to complete registration at a Barclays branch or to provide us with further information before you can use Pingit.

Arbitrary, absurd, completely ridiculous and even astonishing.

These terms and conditions, and this is only a cherry picked selection of them, are unacceptable to all decent people with an intact moral centre, and none of them are needed for Pingit to work if it had been designed properly; they are made to surveil the user and to be compliant. People in other countries or of no country at all will not be bound by these arbitrary, anti human, anti market restrictions, and when an entrepreneur launches a rival e-money app, they will eviscerate Pingit and all other competitors that are spawned by banks.

This might be the reason why Blockchain.info’s Bitcoin app was removed from the iTunes store after having been approved. It is exactly the sort of app that is an existential threat to Pingit and products like it. Both Pingit and Blockchain.info’s apps are free, so there is no friction there. One surveils you and you cannot use it ‘out of the box’ upon download. The other works as soon as you run it and does not surveil you. Bitcoin allows you to send and receive very small fractions of Bitcoin. The arbitrary one pound limit, apart from being denominated in fiat Sterling, means that the world of micro-payments is forever shut off from Pingit. It is a major flaw. Blockchain.info’s app wins over Pingit.

Blockchain.info’s app and service has no KYC restrictions, no fees and no ability to arbitrarily shutdown your account. It is a friction free service. It has no default surveillance, and you do not need to identify yourself in order to use it. There are no limits to the amount of money you store on it. It is international, ‘instant on’ and interoperable with a plethora of different services. By any measure Bitcoin running in Blockchain.info’s app is infinitely superior to Pingit.

On top of all this, Pingit only allows you to send Sterling back and forth. This means that the money you use in Pingit is deflating, losing purchasing power on a monthly basis, by design. Quite apart from the fact that you cannot use this ‘money’ anywhere else but in the UK, the inflation tax is another reason why people will opt for Bitcoin rather than Pingit when the two apps are installed side by side on their phones.

This has implications for Apple also. If they continue to refuse to allow Blockchain.info’s app to be given away for free on iTunes, people will turn to Android phones where they will be able to run the apps that they need without any fear of arbitrary shut down. Imagine that you have 50BTC on your iPhone and you run iTunes to update your apps. Apple, because they have disallowed Blockchain.info’s app, prevents you from getting updated versions, and if you need to download it again, you cant. This is an unacceptable risk, quite apart from being insulting and anti consumer. Its clear that Android phones are the future when it comes to e-money provided by third parties, because Apple cannot be trusted to allow you to use your device for what you need it for. Add to the mix the rumours that Apple is working on iWallet, and you get a sense of what Apple’s motivations might be in removing Blockchain.info’s app. They don’t want any competition… CAPISH?

Barclay’s Pingit service is interesting because it means that money on mobiles is going to happen in a big way. Now it is a matter of who has the best product that will fit into the space, avoiding the bear traps like iTunes, the attacks from the banks (shutting down the accounts of Bitcoin businesses), the technical difficulties and the State.

On top of this, and perhaps the biggest barrier of all for Bitcoin, is the PR problem; getting the public to understand what Bitcoin is, how it works and why it is superior to services like Pingit. In order to make this happen, the merchants are the first line of attack. Bitcoin, if it is accepted in many places will trigger installation of the clients on phones, and a spread of the ecosystem. Blockchain.info’s app is potentially, a key piece of this puzzle.

It should now be clear to anyone with an interest in this that regulation and registration of Bitcoin services will not help adoption. If this is a race between services, clearly Bitcoin has the advantage and the better potential to go viral far more than Pingit or MintChip or any of these broken by design bank offerings.

In order for the chain reaction to happen, nothing must stop the flow of money in the system. Registration and regulation are carbon rods in the pile. What is needed is a runaway chain reaction so that the Bitcoin is spread everywhere, into every device in every pocket. Tying down Bitcoin into jurisdictional boxes, hampering it with onerous regulations, KYC and other arbitrary nonsense will allow Pingit and other services to mature, spread and solidify. Once again, this does not mean that their dominance will be permanent, it will simply mean that for a time, the market is broken and people are hurt. It would be far better for humanity if Bitcoin wins without going through a stage of broken e-money, and there is no reason why this should not happen.

Pingit cannot win. By popularising e-money on mobile phones, they are educating the users about money on mobiles. Once this information is spread everywhere, a new challenger can arrive and wipe them out in a matter of months, and there will be nothing they can do to stop it.

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