NOTE: This piece originally ran on June 8, 2015 but was taken down at the request of CurrentC.
One of the perks of working for a big company is that you sometimes get to try new and interesting things before they’re made available to the public. It doesn’t happen too often, but when it does I make sure to take full advantage. Even when that thing is something mocked by most tech pundits, including myself, I have to at least give it a go.
So when I got the chance to give CurrentC a whirl before it goes live to everyone else, I took it. I was able to skip the invite system and register with an account today. I’m happy to say that CurrentC is not as bad as I feared it would be, but it’s definitely not as easy or as fast as Apple Pay.
Setting up the app was a bit of a pain. I had to verify my email a couple times before they were satisfied that I was me. If I felt like this was a security measure, then I would feel great, but it seemed more like the service was confused. It’s still early days, but still, not a great start.
One thing I really hated was that you have to “secure” your account with 3 security questions. Moving beyond the fact that this is a poor way to secure anything online, they only give you three options for what questions to use. They’re the classic “who was your 1st grade teacher?”, “what was your first boy/girlfriend’s name?”, and “in what town was your first job?”. I don’t even remember my first grade teacher’s name! What if I hadn’t had a job yet? What if I had never had a girlfriend?
Maybe there are more questions in their database, but you randomly assign 3 to each person, but that doesn’t make any sense either. This felt very weird all over.
Once you have a CurrentC account set up, you have to enter a debit, credit, gift card, or checking account as a payment option. I entered my Target Red Card, which went perfectly smoothly. I do wish that I could just take a picture of the card like I can with Apple Pay.
A selling point for CurrentC is that you can combine your payment method as well as loyalty program numbers to a single barcode. So I added my Cartwheel account and my team member discount number to the app. Setting up each of these also went well.
All in all, setting up the app is not that painful. It’s certainly not as smooth as Apple Pay, but now that it’s there, I never have to think about it again.
I used CurrentC to pay at Target today and it wasn't as bad as I feared, but it was much worse than Apple Pay.— Matt Birchler (@mattbirchler) June 6, 2015
Using CurrentC is simply not as good as any of the NFC-based payment options out there. I found the process slow and a little cumbersome.
As opposed to Google Pay which will just requires you to unlock your phone and touch it to a reader, or Apple Pay which doesn’t even require you to unlock your phone, using CurrentC is a multi-step process. You have to unlock your phone, launch the app, tap the “Pay” button in the app, and hold it up for your cashier to scan your phone. Yes, I know this isn’t a ton of work, but it’s comparable to how much work it takes to just swipe your old card.
There was also a noticeable delay in when they scanned my phone to the payment actually going through. It was a good 5-10 seconds between entering my PIN (which you still have to do if it’s a debit card) and getting the “payment approved” message. Normally there is less than a second between PIN and “approved."
The pitch of these mobile payment solutions is that they are both faster and more secure than your current options. CurrentC fails hard at the first category.
But all is not wrong in the world of CurrentC. I did like the fact that I was able to pay with just my phone and leave my discount card in my pocket, and not open the Cartwheel app at all. Since I loaded them all in the app, they were both applied to my purchase automatically. To their credit, they worked just how they normally would.
One final weird note
I showed the payment screen with my QR code (god damn, QR codes are hideous) to some of my coworkers and asked if they would take this as a payment method from a customer. None of them knew what the app was yet, and they all said it looked shady.
I would agree that the app lacks a certain amount of polish and just feels cheap. The UI is minimal, but like “this isn’t done yet” minimal and not “classy piece of art” minimal. It feels like you’re using a wireframe of an app, not a completed, secure payment system.
So am I going to use CurrentC again? Yeah, I think I will. It makes sense for me as I have to scan my discount card every time I make a payment at a Target store. I may as well just have them scan my phone and keep my wallet in my pocket. I don’t think I’ll be using it anywhere else, though. It’s just not that appealing.
I think that CurrentC is a manifestation of what mobile payment skeptics think paying with your phone will be like in the future. It’s fiddly, iffy on security, and really not any faster than using a plain old credit card. While the modern solutions from Apple, Google, and even Samsung are delivering simple, secure systems, CurrentC feels like a cheap knockoff.
But with a few companies (including Target, incidentally) softening their commitment to CurrentC, we may not need to choose.