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The next time you buy something with your cell phone, you might do it straight from a chat

05/08/2015 09:33
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New methods of payments are arriving all the time, and after the revolution in online sales the next step is being able to transfer funds from your cell phone. In fact, this has been in the offing for some time now and is about to become a reality. But we like to stay one step ahead, and now that we know what is around the corner our eyes are set on what the future holds.

So what does the future hold in the way of shopping? The answer is, recovering a technology we've been using for centuries: conversations. Just as when you go into a store and talk with an assistant to buy something, the next development in Internet shopping could be chatting with people online to acquire products. In other words, using a chat function. Take good note, because your next purchase could well be through an instant messaging client.

 

From meeting people to buying products

For many, chat rooms were the first place where they met other people. Over time, the concept gradually ran out of steam and gave way to more private conversations: smaller groups and even one-to-one chats. They're still used today, and although messaging clients have little in common with those IRC clients, they offer something that has become a big part of our lives: communicating with others instantaneously through the Internet.

We've been using the function for years to talk with family and friends, but also to contact and request assistance from different companies. For some enterprises, offering chat technical support has become a vital necessity: think of those online stores with a vast volume of sales or those web hosting services for which the ability to resolve incidents instantaneously is key to their business. Some of them have even opted for automated systems to resolve the most basic queries.

Since communication is so important (demonstrated, for example, by the fact that vehicles like WhatsApp are about to break through the 1 billion users barrier), it was only natural that language and conversations should become a form of online shopping. The signs are already here, and one of the companies making the greatest waves is a startup called Magic.

This company promises something as simple as sending an SMS with your request, which an agent looks for and then offers you a price which you can accept (or not) to close the transaction successfully. You can request whatever you want, as long as you can pay for it and it's legal, as the website makes very clear: from a specific model of cell phone to "the best Thai food in New York". The name is no coincidence either: they want the experience to feel like magic.

Once you've sent your first SMS to register, you'll receive a 128-bit encrypted HTTPS link to enter your credit card details. Magic doesn't keep this information, Stripe acts as the intermediary. The startup went through several major rounds of funding in 2014 and today is valued at more than $3.5 billion.

You ask for it, they find it

After that, it's plain sailing. You send your request then simply wait for an assistant to look for it and manage everything up to the point of accepting payment. Because there's an intermediary, the amount you pay is higher than it would be if you went out and bought it yourself. The philosophy is similar to the one used by other companies that offer on-demand services, such as Uber or TaskRabbit. The difference in this case, though, is that Magic acts as the intermediary and only looks for and sends you what you want to buy.

People who have tried it say the experience has to improve as the magicians don't always perform that well. So we need to give it time, but not so much to the company as to the philosophy behind it because there are quite a few companies out there looking to turn chats into a payment method. In fact, not long ago Facebook itself announced that it's working on a sales service through messages.

There are lots of reasons why Zuckerberg's social media site is interested in this type of payment method. Its main communication systems (Facebook and WhatsApp) are used by 2 billion people who in addition to talking to one another might be willing to use an integrated online sales service, which would increase the company's revenues.

It's a very daring experience but one with vast potential, because if Magic has proved anything it's that what the user receives has to be perfect. This is something we mentioned a while back in connection with the thesis that technology must be invisible in the future. Asking someone to look for something for you and buy it if you agree with the price. The day may come when we pay through our cell phones, but not in the way you might think in the next few months.