Apple, the iPhone 5S, and the UX of Biometric Micropayments

by Geordie Kaytes

Like flying cars, web-based micropayments always seem to be just a few years away. Unfortunately, we’re still waiting for the balance of security, ease-of-use, and ubiquity that would deluge the web economy with untold trillions of Roosevelts.

I suspect Apple have it figured out. The coming release of the iPhone 5S, if it bears the long-rumored fingerprint sensor, will mark the beginning of the micropayment revolution. Biometrics will provide the required level of security and ease-of-use, while integration into the iPhone will practically guarantee ubiquity.

This is how I see it going down:

  • At first, it’ll be about skipping or removing ads. On launch, micropayments the Apple way will just let iPhone users skip or remove advertisements (probably integrated with a new web-based iAds platform, but that’s another post). Since desktops, laptops and non-5s devices won’t have access to Apple’s walled garden of fingers, it will  be marketed as an “experience enhancement” for iPhone users who are willing to pay. Which brings us to…
  • iTunes-like pricing. Apple will take a 30% cut of payments coming through your site. You’ll collect your payments periodically from Apple, which will serve as a middleman to lock in low credit card fees for itself. You won’t complain about any of this, because they’ll make it so wonderfully easy with…
  • Stripe-like website integration. Apple will provide a stripe.js-like integration option to web developers. A single script on your site will manage the payment process, directly accessing the fingerprint sensor through a device API. This will open a secure tunnel to Apple, which will confirm the user’s identity and charge the credit card associated with the user’s Apple ID.

From a site visitor’s perspective, the process will go something like this:

  1. I visit an “iPay Micro”-enabled website, and tap on the article I want to read.
  2. I read a brief preview of the article text, while the fingerprint sensor built into my home button pulses to indicate that it is available for use. As a user, I am presented with two options: swipe to micro-pay, or watch a 30-second video promoting Ensure. As my nutritional needs are more than adequately covered by PBR and pizza-flavored Combos, I choose to pay to skip the commercial.
  3. I swipe my finger over the home button once. This causes the fingerprint sensor to glow solidly, and a subtle overlay to appear on my screen that indicates the cost of the article; in this case, it’s five cents. One more swipe to confirm, my card is charged, and the content is revealed.
  4. If I revisit the content on my laptop, Apple knows that my Apple ID has already purchased this content, and I can read it without paying again.

So, what’s so revolutionary about a proprietary platform that just lets you skip advertisements? Short-term, and by necessity, it’s a minor move. Long-term, it builds a foundation for Apple to become the master of paid content on the web. There are over 575 million active iTunes accounts today; that’s a huge population of users (and, more importantly, credit cards) that Apple can dangle in front of content providers to get its way. Eventually, the ad-skipping model may disappear entirely, replaced by a “log in with your iPay ID, or swipe to continue” micropayment interface that would work for desktop and non-5s users too.

Whether Apple opens their payments API to other biometric methods in the future (Google Glass retina scanner, anyone?) will depend on whether the company sees it as a competitive UX advantage to promote iOS device sales (in which case it will remain locked down like iTunes), or as a revenue channel in its own right. With Apple’s closed-ecosystem history, I’d bet on the former, but the sheer amount of cash on the table could change the corporate calculus in Cupertino.

About Geordie Kaytes

Geordie possesses an enthusiasm and energy that clients love to engage with, and he brings that infectious spirit to every project. He specializes in product...