This story is part of a collection of pieces on how we spend money today.
Will you sign up for the Apple Card? You probably will, frankly. Apple’s latest innovation, which arrives this summer, is a credit card that comes with all kinds of conveniences: No late fees! No long strings of numbers! No wait to qualify! No card, either, if you’re using it the way Apple intends. This is the money of the future—instant, invisible, and a little bit innovative—and it’s all nested beneath the beautiful glass screen of your iPhone.
Apple has a way of turning our everyday activities into little moments of art. The iPod changed the way we listen to music. The App Store and the multitudes it contained gave us dates on demand, personal chauffeurs, and endless photo streams of our friends’ lives. It hopes to reinvent the magazine business. And change the way you stream TV and movies. Now, it’s gunning for the last piece of our lives that Silicon Valley hasn’t quite commandeered: your wallet.
But the Apple Card is only the latest example of how our spending is changing. Money and technology have been holding hands on the park bench for years, just itching to get closer. Venmo and Square Cash popularized the act of paying our friends with our phones; Apple Pay and Android Pay paved the way for paying with your phone in a store. Amazon dematerialized the shopping mall (and its checkout lines). Apple isn’t even the first tech company to slap its logo onto a credit card: Uber makes one; so does Amazon.
Along the way, our expectations around spending have slowly shifted. Why should we have to find an ATM and pull out cash just to pay our share of last night’s dinner? Your camera is an app, your music is an app, your news is an app. Why shouldn’t your wallet be an app, too?
A credit card in Cupertino clothing pushes these expectations even further. “The industry has mainly been competing on price and rewards. This is a virtual card, and the user experience is unique,” says Kalpesh Kapadia, the CEO of Deserve, which makes cards for young people or people without a credit history. “That will force other players in this space to up their game on user experience.”
The perks here aren’t revolutionary. Apple gives card-owners 2 percent cash back when they use their iPhone to pay, or 1 percent cash back when they swipe the physical card, built not from plastic but from titanium. Purchases at Apple stores earn 3 percent cash back. Sure! Fine.
But don’t be fooled. What Apple is really doing is, as Kapadia says, upending the user experience. Those cash back rewards? They show up the next day, in the Daily Cash app, makes spending money feel like a fun game. You reach customer service through Messages. You can see where a particular charge was made in Apple Maps. Spending summaries show up in beautiful, color-coded graphs, and you use an aesthetically pleasing wheel to decide how much of your balance you want to pay down. It’s all very soothing and makes the act of spending money feel fun, even productive.
What does Apple get out of this? For one thing, it lets its ever-growing ecosystem of apps, services, and hardware take over even more parts of your life. Want to spend money beautifully and seamlessly? You’re going to need an iPhone.
It also gets to shape what the future of spending looks like, in ways both small and big. Consider that a few years ago, the idea of paying for anything with a smartphone would have seemed ridiculous. Now, no one blinks an eye when you tap your screen against a card reader in the check-out line. Oh, you still carry a wallet? How quaint!
Those changes can feel like big wins for you and me. Don’t we all want less friction in our financial transactions? And the big tech companies have a tremendous ability to change how retailers take our money. Apple Pay, which was introduced in 2014, is now accepted as a payment method in 74 of the top 100 retailers in the US; Android Pay and Samsung Pay, which offer similar convenience for non-iPhones, have also grown in popularity.
Imagine how Big Tech could also change the status quo for payment security, by replacing those tired and vulnerable credit card numbers with smarter forms of authentication. Imagine, too, how all of these consumer conveniences might overshadow our suspicions about handing over the finer details of our financial lives to Big Tech. Apple says it won’t snoop on your spending, and that’s nice. But that’s not to say that the next company to issue a credit card—Google, or Facebook—won’t sell your monthly statement to the highest bidder. Data is the new money, but also, money is data.
That’s all to say that what the tech giants do matters when it comes to money and the way we spend it. And it’s not just Apple. There are wild, weird ideas across the land. Forget paying for stuff with your iPhone—Amazon has experimented with a payments system that uses facial recognition to automatically charge you for whatever you take from a store. Facebook is supposedly creating its own cryptocurrency, one FaceCoin to rule them all. WeChat, the Chinese social media platform, has driven cash to near-extinction in China with WePay, its own mobile payments system. Those shifts aren’t just the latest technological fad. They’re changes that will impact our society for years to come.
Whether it’s racking up points on the Apple Card or betting on the cryptocurrency du jour, the way we spend is changing. This week at WIRED, we’re dissecting some of those changes—like the shame that comes when social platforms like Instagram know exactly what you’ve bought and how to limit your shopping habits and not get ripped off on Amazon. Oh, and we’ll finally answer the question of whether you should pay $1,000 for a new smartphone.