Amazon’s new pay-with-your-palm tech and its implications
Biometrics aren’t new, but a fresh payment technology turns Amazon into a competitor to Apple Pay, Google Pay, Square, Venmo, the Cash App, PayPal and others… can the Bank of Amazon be far behind?
By Brad Berens
If you live in Austin and love experiencing the sharpest edge of technology, then head to the Whole Foods at Arbor Trails. There you can use a new service called Amazon One to pay for your groceries simply by putting your palm on a scanner. Here’s an excerpt from a fascinating piece in the April 19 edition of Progressive Grocer:
Customer enrollment in the Amazon One service takes less than a minute, which involves linking credit/debit card info and creating palm signatures for one or both palms. A palm signature is created when a customer holds their palm over the Amazon One device, allowing the technology to evaluate multiple aspects of the palm. With no two palms alike, vision technology analyzes all aspects to select the most distinct identifiers on a palm to create a unique palm signature.
Once they’re enrolled and done shopping, customers come to the checkout counter or point of sale, hover their hand over the Amazon One device for about a second or so, and the card linked to their palm will be charged for their purchase. Customers don’t have to worry about fumbling with their wallets and handbags anymore to pull out credit cards at checkout counters.
Some things worth noting:
The service is called Amazon One, not Whole Foods One. Amazon always has at least two reasons for everything it does (I call this “the two-strategy strategy”), so expect the service to roll out first to other Amazon brick-and-mortar retail environments and then as a service that other businesses can use.
However, caveat emptor: when other businesses do enable Amazon One, then they’ll be sharing some of their purchase data with Amazon, which might not work out so well for the other businesses.
Amazon One is part of the company’s ongoing efforts to reduce even tiny points of friction in various paths to purchase. Already, you can pay at Whole Foods via the Amazon app, but with Amazon One you don’t even need to pull out your smartphone.
Also, Amazon One puts the company into the payments business, a competitor to Apple Pay, Google Pay, Square, Venmo, the Cash App, PayPal, and others. You can already get an Amazon credit card, but at present it’s a VISA from Synchrony Bank. Amazon One is opening up space for Amazon to become a bank unto itself and maybe to create its own credit card alternative to VISA or MasterCard.
Americans are wide open to that idea. In a 2018 study we did at the Center for the Digital Future, we found that 35% of Americans were open to moving all their banking to Amazon, more than Google, Walmart, Starbucks, and many others. After two pandemic years during which Amazon earned the trust of locked-down citizens over and over again, I expect that number will have gone up considerably. (See my analysis, “Death Star Scenario: Amazon Prime Bank,” on page 49 of that report.)
Biometrics—using your eyes, fingers, thumb, face, or voice to unlock something—are nothing new. (I always think of the “my voice is my passport” scene from the 1992 movie Sneakers.) Many of us already use biometrics to open our phones with facial or thumbprint recognition. However, an important distinction is that with, say, an iPhone the biometric data is stored on the device, not in the cloud. Amazon One by definition has your biometric data floating around on its servers, which might make privacy minded folks a bit nervous.
Another reason for Amazon One is the company’s weakness when it comes to hardware, particularly smartphones. Yes, Amazon has had great success with its Kindle and Echo (Alexa smart speaker) devices, but without a smartphone of its own it will never have the one-device-to-rule-them-all that would cement its total ownership of the customer relationship. The company has already released Alexa-enabled eyeglass frames that put its digital assistant on your face, but those were an end-run around Siri and the Google Assistant because Amazon doesn’t have a smartphone. (One columnist reported a very mixed experience.) Amazon One is from the same playbook.
From Wearables to Implantables to… Ingestibles?
Amazon One hints at another thing worth teasing out: Americans are comfortable with wearable technology and biometric technology, but that comfort does not extend to things being inserted into their bodies.
In the Center’s COVID Reset project, we asked this question in 2021: “If an invisible and removable digital chip the size of a grain of rice could be painlessly inserted in 10 seconds into your finger that would allow you to eliminate all keys, IDs, boarding passes, credit cards, passports, and all possibilities of fraud, AND contain all your medical information, would you consider it?”
Here are the answers:
21% (Yes for all information)
15% (Yes, for health information only)
4% (Yes, for non health information only)
(The second, third, and fourth percentages are subsets of the first.)
I see a future where humans regularly cross the skin frontier to implant technology inside their bodies. Not only the “never forget your keys again” scenario of the above question, but a shunt in your lower back into which you can insert genetically-personalized medications that you’ve 3D printed in your home.
It won’t only be tragically paralyzed people who have cranial implants that let them move cursors with their minds: we’ll all be able to point-and-click just by thinking about it. (Elon Musk’s Neuralink is one company working on this.) Diabetics won’t have to suffer needles anymore: implanted sensors will beam their blood sugar levels to their phones and a device will release insulin painlessly and automatically. That sort of thing.
But while I see this future clearly, I’m in the minority. For now.
Amazon One is part of the company’s ongoing efforts to reduce even tiny points of friction in various paths to purchase. Already, you can pay at Whole Foods via the Amazon app, but with Amazon One you don’t even need to pull out your smartphone. Also, Amazon One puts the company into the payments business, a competitor to Apple Pay, Google Pay, Square, Venmo, the Cash App, PayPal, and others. Amazon One is opening up space for Amazon to become a bank unto itself and maybe to create its own credit card alternative to VISA or MasterCard.
One gateway technology, I predict, will be swallowable technology: ingestibles. We’re already accustomed to eating and taking pills, so swallowing a piece of technology should be less scary than having a shot or small surgery… particularly if it looks like a pill and if we trust that nature will take its course and the tech will pass out of our bodies without discomfort. (Proteus Digital Health, an early pioneer in this sort of thing, sadly failed.)
Pulling it all together, the big picture is that we live in an increasingly ubiquitous computing environment. Whether it’s tech where we live (computers, smart homes), tech we carry with us (smartphones, wearables), tech we encounter as we move around (ambient computing, biometrics, scanners, interactive screens), and in the near future tech inside our bodies, the differences between our real lives and our digital lives are getting harder to see.
Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).
See all columns from the Center.
April 27, 2022