Back to the future – QR codes are coming

QR codes are coming

Who’d have thought that the humble barcode – reimagined in 3D – would have posed a genuine threat to the global behemoths that are the international card payments schemes?  And, of all the times, why now? Well, as always, there’s no single answer. We’re seeing multiple trends coalescing to drive uptake of QR code initiated payments, but the announcement by PayPal that they’re rolling their solution out to all CVS stores is perhaps a critical moment:

PayPal and InComm on Thursday (July 30) unveiled a QR code payment system that will enable touchless checkouts by PayPal and Venmo users with their mobile phones at brick-and-mortar stores.

Paypal teams up with CVS to offer touch-free payments

It’s not so much that it makes QR codes mainstream, it’s more that it validates the point that they’re a perfectly viable way of making in-store payments, and then tying it to a e-comm type payment method: now that’s replicable. Four things are coming together to drive the adoption of QR codes:

  1. Smartphones: The widespread availability of smartphones makes them a perfect solution for retail payments. If everyone has one then creating a pervasive alternative to card payments is possible.
  2. Connectivity: In fact it’s not absolutely necessary to always have mobile data connectivity to allow QR code based payments, but I helps managing the risk. And even where mobile data isn’t available a lot of mainstream retail chains are providing in store WiFi or Bluetooth capability.
  3. COVID-19: Suddenly contact-free payments are the way to go – and QR Code initiated payments are a guaranteed way of ensuring that payments can be made without touching merchant equipment.
  4. Integrated retail experiences – “omnichannel”: Merchants with a good omnichannel experience are having a better crisis because the ability to order and pay on one channel and fulfil on another is critical. Increasingly merchant POS estates have API based access to backend systems which can be used to access QR code authorisation or approval channels.

The pay-by-app model, we’ve been touting for years is actually, finally, coming to fruition. Lots of individual merchants – and probably every major supermarket chain in the world – has its own app that allows QR code based payments. Those apps allow a range of other functions to be integrated, including scanning, checkout, automated loyalty redemption and real-time customer data analytics.  The ability to make the customer relationship sticky is attractive and with the average supermarket basket value increasing as customers shop bigger and less often ensuring that you’re the retail destination of choice is critical.

Behind this, however, is another change – and one that the PayPal deal with CVS lays bare. There is nothing that forces one of these QR code initiated payment apps to use payment cards as the means of transaction. Sure, they’ll be there as a backup but any API-based payment solution – and there are hundreds, if not thousands – can be integrated. As direct to account payment APIs, such as the PSD2 payment initiation API that’s mandated in Europe, become more widespread, it will be possible to go direct to the payment account in order to authorise payments.

This trend has other, major implications for other aspects of payments such as settlement and refunds but, as we can see from our own clients, a lot of thought and effort is going into resolving those issues. For retailers who can see lower cost of payments, reduced fraud, significant reductions in the cost of handling chargebacks and faster settlement this is a win-win-win-win situation.

As you might surmise, here at Consult Hyperion, we are heavily involved in all aspects of this change. From helping to develop and secure the apps, to advising on the business and governance models, through to designing and developing the solutions, and providing regulatory advice. We’re leaders in the field. If you’re interested come back to the future with us, QR codes are coming…

Blockchain as a public technology service

When people say “blockchain” they mean different things. And some of the things they mean are just absolutely, categorically different. Implications of public open blockchain designs and private blockchain designs vary drastically. I emphasis this distinction because it is key – the different designs assume and imply totally different things.

Both types are important but for different reasons, for different markets and for different use cases. I think we have passed the time when “Bitcoin bad – Blockchain good” seemed an eye opener. What this kind of argument did is it drew the attention of financial incumbents from the Bitcoin-like permissionless space to the private, permissioned space. Which makes sense for their business models. But I think they are not paying enough attention to the permissionless space. I think you are not either!

A brave slide from the Consensus conference in New York this year (unfortunately, can’t remember the name of the speaker! – let know and I’ll update), where I chaired the panel on post-trade and my colleague Dave Birch chaired panels on Identity. This illustrates that “Bitcoin bad, Blockchain good” is not set in stone.

I bet you hadn’t anticipated such a steep rise of Ethereum (the price of native Ethereum currency soared 10 times from the beginning of 2015 and Ethereum’s market cap reached 1.5 billion dollars). You may have even missed the creation of the first human-free organisation. Even if you try to keep an eye on the public blockchain world, you only get reminded of its existence when Bitcoin price surges to its 2-year high (it now trades at over 700$) and all the mainstream media cover this.

Both public and private shared ledgers (Blockchains) are essentially shared book-keeping (and computing) systems, one class – open for everyone to use (public), another – restricted to a certain group of members (private). And this is it. Open for everyone to use means lower entry barriers, it means identity-free and regulation-free shared book-keeping (and computing). What could be restricted by identity policies and financial regulations goes around this. You can, say, restrict a person from buying bitcoins by setting high KYC requirements to online exchanges (for users not to be able to change dollars for bitcoins if they are not KYC’d). You can even cut his or her internet connection. You can issue a court order to close a business that accepts bitcoins as money. And so on and so forth.

A lot of this effort looks similar to trying to stop the Internet, but I suppose the regulators can dream!

Public technology service and native digital rights

“Proof-of-work is inefficient”. So what? Let it go! Think of what’s the idea behind it and what it tries to achieve, regardless of this inefficiency. Regardless – because even if proof-of-work is not ideal, there are other permissionless technologies already developed and many more that are work in progress. Some of best minds in the world are looking to provide the benefits of permissionless shared ledger environment without the drawbacks of original Bitcoin’s proof-of-work. Just assume that they will solve that problem and move your thinking on.

What the blockchain delivers is permissionless book-keeping (and computing) public technology service (with the unchangeable and transparent transaction history as an incredibly valuable side effect). When I say “public service”, I do not mean that a company or public organisation provides it, I mean technology itself and collaborative user effort provide it. In a sense – everyone and no one. The protocol acts as the service provider.

And this is crucial. In traditional financial world, the basic value transfer layer that cryptocurrencies (i.e. everyone and no one) provide as a public technology service, is provided by companies – service providers, and is not accessible to anyone. For example, PayPal provides digital value transfer service.

Here I want to make a point that permissionless cryptocurrency systems have a promise of a digital environment in which value transfer is intrinsic, embedded on the protocol level – and so, for users the ability to make a transfer could become what I call a native digital right. Just to give you an analogy (it’s not a very accurate analogy but you’ll like it!) – take a guess what you see on the picture below. Well, it’s a standard residential elevator in my mother country Georgia, where you need to pay every time you use it! Up and down. Every time up, every time down!

Georgian elevator. Each time you go up and down, you need to pay!

So maybe we all (all internet users) live in our kind of Georgia, where every time we want to make a deal (economic agreement) in the online world we have to go through a cumbersome process and pay an unreasonable fee (each time!) for it. We need to get our bag out, fill in our card details, merchant’s acquirer (if it’s a merchant – even more obstacles with peer transfers) needs to send a request, card issuer needs to approve the transaction etc. Our today’s economic life online is based on this very complex e-commerce domain. And to me, it looks a lot like Georgian elevator. Think about it: on top of the obvious, that elevator only accepts certain denominations of Georgian coins – very specific, and is broken every once in a while – so even if you want to use a paid elevator sometimes you just can’t. So familiar.

How great would it be if we had a native digital right to make a value transfer online that noone could take from us (or grant us!), on a protocol level. How many applications could be built on top (at Consult Hyperion we call them SLAPPs -shared ledger applications)!

Persistence of permissionless

At the heart of the public shared ledgers is value transfer. This is because in order to assure the liveliness and self-sufficiency of the system, while providing non-restricted access to it, there needs to be an intrinsic economic incentive for those who maintain it. In other words, there should be a positive value to maintaining consensus. Most public shared ledgers for this reason can be described as currencies (decentralised cryptocurrencies) because they provide this incentive as a reward on the ledger in the ledger’s own “money”.

The canonical example of such a decentralised cryptocurrency is, of course, Bitcoin (remember, there are hundreds of them though!).  As Bitcoin was intended to exist and evolve out of the reach of regulatory, corporate or any other centralised command, the technology includes mechanisms that ensure it persistently “survives” and proves its robustness and self-sufficiency. (Disclaimer: I’m not a Bitcoin maximalist)

This persistence is a differentiating characteristic of a public shared ledger system. The technology does not need people at tables making decisions in order to survive, it is “permissionless” (nevertheless, the way it evolves to an extent is influenced by “people at the tables” – just different people).

Virtual economy

Potentially the principal implication of this persistence is the permissionless ascent of alternative virtual economy on top of decentralised protocols. Cryptocurrencies are not just a new form of payment – but rather, it’s a potential foundation for a new virtual economy, with new forms of economic interactions coming into place. When I say “new”, I don’t mean substitutive – I mean additional.

Virtual economic activity could become something fundamental to the Internet. Similar to the way the ability to communicate transformed into the ability to communicate over the Internet – it could grow into the ability to make friction-less economic arrangements (“economically” communicate) in the virtual world.

Thanks to the shared ledger technology and “smart contracts” innovation, not only the emergence of alternative economy is permissionless (and so – non-stoppable), but if it happens at certain scale, the very nature of economic relationships in this economy could be drastically different from what we are used to. A good depiction of such transformation is content monetisation on the web through the use of “invisible” micropayments. Another good example is seamless online payments in video games:

Breakout Coin provides for seamless in-game payments anywhere in the world, while the blockchain technology behind it, Breakout Chain, uses smart contracts and sidechains to enforce these financial agreements between parties.


Shared ledger technology could even turn our things (as in “Internet of Things”) into active economic agents through smart contracts.

Public shared ledger technology may help to turn a big part of our (as it seems) non-economic life into an economic activities. 

Although there are many “if” in that, we should not dismiss this possibility quite yet and keep an eye on the permissionless space. You can observe or get involved, but it would be a mistake to put your head in the sand and deny that something incredible is happening.

BarCampBank London 7 was unpredictable and therefore great

Dgwb blog white border

Our London Unconference, now an annual event held the day before Finovate Europe, was as unpredictable as always, which is why I like it so much. I really didn’t expect technology to feature so heavily, but it did.

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