San Francisco: Paying for things online can be cumbersome. Even the man who invented the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, says he frequently throws up his hands.
“Sometimes I will think that I bought something and I press the button, ‘Buy this,’ and I don’t realize it didn’t go through,” Berners-Lee said in a recent interview. “We are long overdue for a payments user interface for the web.”
Responding to the frustrations of Berners-Lee and hundreds of millions of online shoppers, the web’s governing body, the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, has brought together the giants of the Internet including Google, Facebook and Apple to fix the clumsiness of paying for things online.
Now, a new global standard for online payments—a sort of Amazon one-click payment system for the entire Internet—is being completed by the consortium and its members.
Google, one of the authors of the standard, has recently introduced it in certain new versions of its Chrome browser. Other browser companies have said they intend to follow.
The standard will provide a uniform way for users to input their credit cards and payment systems to any web browser so they can be used for any purchase on the web. After the card details are entered once, they will automatically be called up as choices for all future transactions.
This will be somewhat like the existing auto-fill functions that browsers have. But with the new standard, all the data fields will be filled in invisibly, requiring just one click.
On the security side, rather than sending along all the credit card details, the browser will generate a one-time payment token that will avoid leaving your credit card number in countless databases around the world.
Numerous efforts to modernize the payment system have failed to take off. And this one could fizzle, too, if online merchants, web browsers or consumers fail to adopt the new standard.
The new standard will also face competition from the Amazons and PayPals of the world, as well as from the credit card networks, all of which want to be the primary destination for payments, rather than just one option.
But payment analysts are hopeful about the new effort because it will not require consumers or merchants to use a new method of payment. Instead it will be equally open to any existing card or payment app, and it will channel them into a single place that most consumers already use—the web browser—where everything can be stored and used.
“Instead of simplifying the world, we have been fragmenting it into a million apps,” said Eric Shea, a payments consultant at Kurt Salmon Digital. “If we can get back to that single integrated solution that everyone has on their phone and their desktop, that is the way to move forward and get adoption.”
Dave Birch, a consultant who has been working on electronic payments for more than two decades, said the web browser stood the best chance of providing a unified and more secure portal for payments.
“There’s a convergence going on,” said Birch, who works for Consult Hyperion. “In the future you will have one experience—it won’t matter if you are at the store or on the phone. It will pop up on your phone, you will put your thumb on it and you will be done.”
The W3C project represents a challenge to PayPal and Amazon, the current giants of online payments. Both have gained business and fees with their more streamlined checkout processes.
Neither company has participated in the current W3C effort and they are likely to continue to provide an alternative to customers who don’t want to enter their details into their browser.
But the W3C has managed to bring in about 40 of the biggest players in online commerce, including Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and American Express as well as Chinese companies like Alibaba and Tencent.
All met last week in Portugal to put the finishing touches on the specifications that they will introduce on different time frames to users around the world.
In the version Google released, when customers shopping at participating merchants hit the buy button, they are given a drop-down menu of their stored shipping addresses and credit cards.
The customer can click on the address and card they want to use, enter the three-digit security code on the card and hit “pay now.” Other browser companies may choose to use a fingerprint instead of the security code.
The fees from transactions will still go to existing financial institutions like credit card companies and banks, unless customers choose a new online payment method like ApplePay or SamsungPay, which take a piece of each transaction.
But the bigger goal behind the W3C project is to create a standard, seamless and secure way to pay for things electronically in a future that will most likely include virtual reality stores, chat-based transactions and machines making payments to other machines (an autonomous car paying for a parking spot, for instance).
©2016/THE NEW YORK TIMES