Coinbase Is Bringing Back the Web’s Long Lost Payment Code
Marc Andreessen built the first consumer web browser. It was called Netscape, and until a ruthless monopoly from Redmond, Washington summarily crushed its soul, Netscape was a wonderful thing. But Andreessen, now a big-name Silicon Valley venture capitalist, has one regret, one thing he’d like to go back in time and fix. As he explained at WIRED’s business conference a few years ago: “The counter-factual alternate history I like playing with is: what if we had built payments—one-click payments—into the browser from the very beginning, starting in 1992?”
It would have simplified the last twenty years. See a shirt or a microwave or a song or a digital magazine or even a single story you want? Click a button at the top of your browser and send a few dollars, a few cents, or even few fractions of a cent across the ‘net. Andreessen tried to make this happen, unsuccessfully pushing for partnerships with the likes of Visa and Mastercard. And he wasn’t the only one mulling the idea. The original hypertext transfer protocol—aka http, the protocol that defined the underpinnings of the web—included a code for payments. Everyone knows the 404 error code that pops up when a website isn’t found. But few people know that code 10.4.3 402 was designated as “payment required.” It was “reserved for future use.”
Andreessen likes to mention this when discussing startups like Coinbase and Stripe. Though he failed to squeeze payments into the browser in the early ’90s, these companies are poised to take that idea even further. Coinbase deals in bitcoin, for instance, and it hopes to turn this technology into what you might call an Internet for money—a worldwide computer network that lets anyone and everyone more easily store, send, and receive money.
In fact, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong wants to resurrect Andreessen’s original notion. He and others within the company recently brainstormed the future of bitcoin applications, and one idea they cooked up was, yes, building payments into the browser. Either by fashioning a new browser or creating a plug-in for the likes of Chrome or Firefox, Armstrong aims to create a bitcoin “wallet” that seamlessly dovetails with your web-browsing experience.
“It would be a Chrome extension or a fork of Firefox or Chrome that would carry a balance of bitcoin inside the browser,” Anderson says. “Then we would create some websites—or encourage the creation of them—that would bring back the 402 code.” As Anderson describes it, a news site might ask you: “Would you like to finish reading this article?” Click “OK” and it will debit a (very) tiny fee from your wallet and load the rest of the article.
How We Really Want Money to Work
Such a plug-in won’t change the world. It would be nice to have payments built into the browser, but the world is moving away from the browser toward apps. Yet the Coinbase plug-in is a good way of at least showing what online payments should look like in other places. What we want—and what Andreessen wanted all those years ago—is a way of sending and receiving money that is as easy as sending and receiving email, an IM, or anything else we can instantly push across the net.
On some level, we already have this on our phones. In-app payments let anyone instantly pay for all sorts of stuff in all sorts of apps with a tap or a thumbprint. And with services like Apple Pay and Android Pay, those two companies have created a way of adding a credit card to a digital wallet and using it to pay for practically anything via your phone, whether online or in physical stores.
People like Armstrong aim to take this ease of transferring money even further with bitcoin. They want to shift money itself onto the Internet. Bitcoin provides a way of storing money online and moving it from location to location and person to person without dealing with banks, governments, or any other central authority. “It banks the un-banked of the world,” Armstrong says, referring to those around the world who have a phone but not a bank account or a credit card.
Buying by Browser
Bitcoin also can help move money across international borders more easily, and it will help build financial applications in a way that isn’t possible now. It’s so much easier to build software atop the bitcoin network than on a network run by, say, Visa. If you use a phone here in the US, where online payments are evolving in others ways, that may not seem all that important. But it’s quite important elsewhere in the world.
“Someone in a developing country has a fair number of ways to pay for things,” says Peter Van Valkenburgh, director of research at the Coin Center, a non-profit dedicated to bitcoin public policy issues. “But that’s not at all true in the developing world, where a large percentage of the population no access to financial institutions, payments, and bank accounts.”
Armstrong points out that anyone in any country can build a smartphone app, but what they can’t necessarily offer it for sale beyond the country’s borders. “There will be more innovation in the world if this exists,” Armstrong says. “It will democratize the idea of entrepreneurship.”
What’s more, says Van Valkenburgh, bitcoin is well suited to micropayments in which you pay a fraction of cent for something. That’s harder to do with credit cards. And it could have profound implications in the US as well as overseas.
What we want is a system that lets use rapidly send and receive even tiny amounts of money not only from a browser, but from, well, anywhere. And that’s where a company like Coinbase is aiming. The trouble is that this revolution is slow in coming, due to regulatory hurdles, resistance from entrenched players, and ill-conceived schemes that have generated bad press. But that’s to be expected. As Andreessen will tell you, creating an Internet for money was never going to be easy.