Coin: The Card To Replace Them All

What seems like a very long time ago now, I signed up for a crowdfunded project called Coin. The literally credit sized (in all dimensions) sliver of electronics claimed to be able to pretend to be all of my credit cards, selecting the one I wanted being as simple as pressing a “button” on the card.

Well, this week my card finally arrived, much later than they had originally estimated, and after a much longer beta testing period (which I had signed up to be a part of, but was not selected for).

Setting up the card was mostly straightforward (I already had the app on my iPhone and the account set up since they sent instructions for doing that part a long time ago so we could track our order too).

Loading Cards

I had a small hiccup getting the cards sync’d onto the Coin, but once I worked out that the trick was to wait for the phone app to tell me to activate the card and get it into sync mode, it all went smoothly. At least for the two credit cards.

The Starbucks card I tried to load was another problem altogether. The Coin ships with a small card reader that plugs into the headphone/mic jack on the iPhone (similar to the original Square card readers). That is able to read credit cards easily, but when it came to reading my Starbucks card it took a few swipes to get it to read, and even then the number it read from the mag stripe didn’t match the number printed on the card. I have a support request open with Coin to see whether that is expected.

In Use

To be clear, I am on day one here, but right now I only have a 33% success rate. The Thai restaurant where I ate lunch tried to swipe the card and it came back as invalid. The same happened here at the swimming pool cafe, though this one I was expecting since the folks behind the @Coin Twitter account had already pointed me to an article in their support system listing the stores and POS systems that cause problems, and the pool cafe uses a LeapSet register, which is on the list of POS systems that fail.

The place that it did work? The self-checkout lane at Safeway. Swiped first time, just as if I had been using the original card.

The Issue

The issue, it seems, is that some stores/POS systems expect to be able to read data from a second track in the magnetic stripe on the back of the card. The Coin only has the ability to provide one track’s worth of data. I now understand why a more recent competitor to Coin, StratosCard, makes a big deal of being dual track. 

From the Coin website, it sounds like it is the minority that need that data, but apparently it wasn’t hard for me to find some of those places.

The Future

Ironically, the very day I finally receive the Coin, I also get an email from Wells Fargo telling me to expect my credit card to be upgraded to one with an embedded chip. My card already has that because I requested it when signing up, but the long overdue switch to smart cards (aka chip & PIN) in the U.S. leaves me wondering what the future holds for both Coin and Stratos. The latter does talk of future upgrades to chip based cards, but the whole point of those cards is they are much, much harder to clone. 

Of course, mag stripe support is not going anywhere in the near future, but there will be pressure on retailers to prefer chip based cards. In the UK, where chip & PIN has been the norm for a number of years, I had one store refuse to sell me an expensive computer because my credit cards were not chip & PIN (my Amex is “chip & signature” – which is a ridiculous cop out – and my Wells card for some reason becomes that when outside the U.S.).

And then there is NFC based contactless payment. Also common outside the U.S., but thanks to Apple Pay, it is catching on here too. Coin is not NFC enabled either.

The Coin’s battery is expected to last two years; by then it will likely be obsolete and we will see what is there to replace it. Perhaps something similar to ApplePay but using a dedicated card rather than a smartphone (or watch).

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