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It’s already insanely easy to pay for coffee. And that’s nowhere near good enough for the Valley. Tim Green marvels at the tech industry’s obsession with this non-problem…

Remember when coffee was a sort of pale grey colour, and was usually mixed with chicory?

I do. I grew up in the 1970s in Birmingham, England. Back then, you didn’t buy a cup of coffee in a shop. You bought a jar of powdered stuff from a supermarket, and you made it yourself at home.

And, yes, it was disgusting. But it was all relative. The food was revolting too. And the wallpaper. And you should have seen my trousers.

   Inevitably, Google is testing Hands Free in the South Bay area of Silicon Valley. That way it can see exactly how it will affect the buying of lattes

Then something happened in the nineties. Coffee began to taste nice. Everyone started drinking it recreationally in shops. And I mean everyone.

It still amazes me when I see a group of very old ladies – ladies old enough to remember post-war rationing – walk into Costa and ask the barista for a latte, a mocchiato and two cappuccinos. Incredible. Though these women should really be chided for their Italian.

It’s ‘cappuccini’ for pity’s sake.

Anyhow, now we seem to be in the next phase of coffee retailing, which is all about mobile payments. Dozens of new products are pouring on to the market. And it appears that every new product has to come with a latte.

Products like this. And this. And this. And this.

Hence, those old ladies are now wandering in to the local coffee shop to say: “One tokenised NFC transaction, one app-based P2P transfer and something with HCE on it. Oh, and a slice of battenberg if you have some.”

I’m a but dubious. This obsession with making it ‘easier’ to buy coffee seems so narrow-minded. It’s as if Silicon Valley firms brainstormed their biggest problems and came up with how long it takes to buy a skinny ch-cho to go.

And they keep banging away at the same solutions to these non-problems.

The last of those links reveals Google’s new Hands Free mobile wallet. Here, users can set up the app to that when they walk into a participating store, they are recognised by the POS system (via Bluetooth low energy, Wi-Fi, and location services).

When ready to pay, they can simply tell the cashier, “I’ll pay with Google.” The cashier checks their mugshot on the system and rings up the sale.

M-payment watchers might recognise the set-up. It’s the same as that tried and abandoned by Square and PayPal before it.

You can see why this might seem like a good idea. In theory, it does cut queue waiting times. And it also brings back some human element to the transaction.

Indeed, you could see it as a return to the early days of retail, before cards and supermarkets. A time when you had a conversation with the shopkeeper and asked him or her to put your items on the tab.

In this sense, it brings some human dimension back to the transaction. That’s nice. Especially when the humans are as great-looking as those two actors in the video.

Inevitably, Google is testing Hands Free in the South Bay area of Silicon Valley. That way it can see exactly how it will affect the buying of lattes.

tim-greenTim Green

Features Editor

MEF Minute

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But I doubt it will work any better than its failed precedents. As many people have said many times before, payment itself is not the problem. Selling is the problem. Knowing who your customers are is the problem. Lack of product information is the problem. Loyalty is the problem. Receipt-keeping is the problem. Account balancing is the problem.

Hands Free chips away at some of these. But not enough.

As someone who studies the market, I do believe mobile payment will prevail (over cards, though not cash – not for a while). But it needs to set its sights a lot wider than flat whites.