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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

In an Uber all graphite and glitter

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

Apple Pay
Apple Pay in action.

I really didn’t react well to Tim O’Reilly’s essay, “What Amazon, iTunes, and Uber teach us about Apple Pay“, and for the last day I’ve been trying to figure out why.

O’Reilly’s a smart guy. And I don’t think he’s wrong in suggesting that sometimes we demand improvements in horse technology and miss the fact that the invention of the automobile is just around the corner.

And yet he seems to be throwing Apple Pay under the bus in order to promote other payment methods (including one O’Reilly invests in) that represent a fantasy world of a connected future that probably won’t ever come to be. It’s a little like saying the Apple Watch isn’t really relevant because the sun’s going to run out of fuel and burn the Earth.

O’Reilly doesn’t like Apple Pay because it’s a “digital facsimile of a process that is already on its way to becoming obsolete.” His point is that when he summons an Uber, he doesn’t need to identify himself or calculate a tip or pay the bill manually—it’s all done for him. This, says O’Reilly, is a “truly disruptive service” that has “already done away with the old payment model.”

To summon an Uber, O’Reilly needs to take his phone out of his pocket, launch the Uber app, and tap a few times. If those steps sound familiar, it’s because they’re not that different from how one would buy some groceries at Whole Foods using Apple Pay. The phone comes out at the start of the process, rather than the end, but it still comes out.

O’Reilly is proud that he “never searches for his wallet” when he takes an Uber, but he had to pull his wallet out in order to sign up for Uber, and every time his credit-card number changes he’ll need to update that information.

Once an iPhone is set up with Apple Pay, it’s a one-touch system for payment and optional identification. The number that gets transmitted is not your credit card number, so it’s more secure. If you’re shopping at a store that has a loyalty card system, and you wish to add that information to your iPhone, you can pass that along too.

I’ve ridden in Uber cars a few times, and it’s a very cool experience. But transactions require validation. Uber validates by connecting your phone to Uber’s servers and drivers using the Uber app. Apple Pay validates by transmitting a secure string of digits that your bank will translate and accept. These examples don’t seem to be opposite at all. They both use your phone to validate your identity and confirm your purchase.

And of course, it goes without saying that an Uber transaction is about as simple as it gets. When I walk up to the Whole Foods checkout line with my fresh ground peanut butter, a Stone Smoked Porter, and some aged Manchego, how do I get an Uber class experience? Even if RFID technology improved to the point that I could just walk out of the store and be automagically charged, I’d still need to validate my purchase in some way, a la Apple Pay.

Sure, maybe O’Reilly’s post bugged me because he’s playing the familiar game of using recent Apple product news as a strawman to compare to an utterly different kind of technology, while throwing in coded phrases like “Apple hype machine.” (Replying to a comment on his own article, O’Reilly declares, “What I wrote wasn’t really about Apple Pay.” Of course it wasn’t.)

But I think what really rankles is that Tim O’Reilly is applying his vision to a Silicon Valley utopia where people take Ubers to their Cover-booked restaurants, always operating on their own recognizance and never, ever waiting for the check. There’ll be spandex jackets, one for everyone.

Apparently these people never go to the supermarket.

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