What’s in your wallet? – Protocol

Good morning! Everyone wants a lock on the “wallet” metaphor. But with Amazon, Google, Apple, Meta, and countless others each having their own wallet, we’re reaching a point of digital wallet saturation. And that’s not counting the wallet you keep in your pocket.

The Attack of the Killer Wallets

I bought a new wallet the other day, on Amazon, after searching in vain store after store for what I wanted. I’m happy with my purchase; it has an outside pocket for my transit pass, a clear window for my ID, and even a money clip instead of an inside flap pocket. I have no idea who did it.

Thing is, I don’t really need my wallet most of the time. I haven’t done it for years. The Starbucks app lets me caffeine after a walk on the beach. Apple Pay supports a trip to the grocery store, and Apple Wallet also stores a virtual version of my Clipper card for the bus now. Soon our identifiers will also be digital. Cash? Hey, I’ll just Venmo you.

Everyone wants to be a wallet. The wallet metaphor is powerful: a store of identity and value. Who in tech wouldn’t want a lock on that?

  • The notion of an online tool that stores a credit card for use goes back decades. (I like to say things like that, because I’m old.) PayPal still leads the category, especially in traditional e-commerce.
  • Apple Pay and Google Pay are popular when it comes to mobile wallets, although they’re still not widely used compared to physical cards.
  • There’s also Amazon Pay and even Meta Pay, although the wallet formerly known as Facebook Pay is primarily useful for Instagram and Facebook and Shopify marketplaces. Shopify has its own Shop Pay wallet. Even Walmart and Safeway have wallets in their apps. Confused again?

Crypto complicated things further. Sending or receiving crypto requires a wallet, although a crypto wallet is really just an address on a distributed ledger. Yet the crypto and NFT crazes have given the wallet metaphor even more power.

  • Robinhood spurred users on by promising a crypto wallet, though its timing was poor, as interest in crypto trading plummeted along with the price of bitcoin this year.
  • Do you want to buy an NFT? You need a wallet, preferably MetaMask, which OpenSea more or less recommends.
  • The odd thing about crypto wallets, however, is that they are public and transparent: anyone can see the transactions. And anyone can send them things, which means celebrities are spammed with shitcoins and junky NFTs. A crypto wallet is less like a wallet in your pocket or purse, and more like a roadside mailbox that any curious neighbor can peek into or fill out flyers.
  • Here’s a sign that the wallet trend might be jumping the shark: Adam Neumann’s Flow, which just raised $350 million from crypto enthusiasts Andreessen Horowitz, is reportedly developing a wallet for tenants of his residential real estate properties. It won’t be used to make lease payments with crypto — that would be too helpful — but it could be used for “tokenized” rewards, a company spokesperson told Forbes.

How many wallets are too many? In the real world, we usually only have one. And this is where the metaphor really fails.

  • Randi Zuckerberg, who has found a new phase in his career promoting crypto, says the problem is, well, short-sighted corporate greed. A glut of wallets “does not help the development” of Web3, she said during a talk at the Global Supertrends conference on Wednesday. “You leave the house with a wallet,” she pointed out. “And you must see this same behavior online as well.”
  • Maybe she could discuss it with her little brother? Announcing that Facebook Pay was becoming Meta Pay, Mark Zuckerberg promised “a digital wallet for the metaverse”, but admitted that it was “a long road to get there”. And it’s far from clear that Meta’s competitors, or even its users, want Meta to be that one digital wallet. Regulators might also have ideas here.

If we’re really going to work that wallet metaphor, maybe the best wallet is the one you don’t have to think about. Apple and Google could have an advantage here, as their built-in wallets increasingly blend into the day-to-day functions of iPhones and Androids. But they’re still much more difficult to use than the physical tool they aim to replace. When I received my new physical wallet, I simply moved my cards, which was much less of a pain than restoring my multiple digital wallets when my phone died.

And that’s the contradiction at the heart of this trend: a truly interoperable wallet is extremely useful for consumers, but a worthless commodity for the company that provides it. If a tech company isn’t trying to choose it, is it really a wallet?

—Owen Thomas (E-mail | Twitter)

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