RIP Google BebaPay – Requiem for a cashless payment system

Less than a year after going live, Google is closing down the BebaPay smart card which was introduced as an NFC based cashless payment mechanism for Nairobi’s public transport.

Last year, I’d analyzed the context and the operating environment in which they’d launched their service, on hearing the news that they’d been struggling to gain traction. I’d gone on to add my thoughts on designing services for the informal economy, where a vast majority manage on irregular incomes and transactions are primarily in cash.

Today we note that Kenyan BebaPay card holders have been advised to use up any remaining balance and/or turn in their smart cards for a prepaid MasterCard, issued by the same bank that Google partnered with. We also note that Google had shut down their payments pilot in The Philippines and is apparently planning to step out of the payments space.

This gives rise to food for thought – are they shutting these initiatives down because of a pivot in business strategy away from payments, leaving the way open for MasterCard? Or, and this is of interest to me from the design planning perspective, did their inhouse approach to new product development create a situation where they found themselves struggling to lower barriers to user adoption of their services, and thus led to their decision to withdraw from the entire playing field?

Tech driven innovation

I have the experience of a deep dive or immersion – in the operating environments of both Kenya and The Phillippines – exploring the way people manage their finances whilst juggling their irregular income streams to minimize volatility and plan for their expenses. These new markets are so different from Google’s accustomed playing field that their usual approach to new product introductions may not be the right fit, if indeed they seek to expand their reach beyond their existing sphere of dominance.

On the interwebs, we have become accustomed to the concept of companies that launch products in beta, still buggy and finding their way. Over time, we have also come to recognize Google’s habits of shutting down services, regardless of how much we may weep or wail –> Google’s RSS Reader, for example, is one still missed by many in the old skool.

But once you step away from your tech savvy audience in the broadband segments, to the millions of noobs coming online, with an entirely different contextual knowledge of technology and its practices, I don’t believe you can summarily make the same moves you could have earlier, without there being a bigger backlash.

700,000 commuters have been left stranded in Nairobi, forced to find a replacement for an innovative tech solution that they were forced to adopt in the first place when the government put their cashless policy in place for bus fares.

This is the real world, and these are real people, struggling to make their way home after a hard day’s work trying to make a living.

This isn’t the minor inconvenience of not being able to use Reader’s free service to grab your favourite RSS feeds.

These are also new markets for the Google brand. One where reputation, commitment and longevity matters. These are not your regular customers tied to your GMail or other services, like the rest of us, that we still come back to search or check our mail even if you take away a toy or two from your playground. Particularly if you’re looking to provide a service for the lower income bracket in the developing world.

The Ugandan tech blog Dignited pointed out the demise of Google’s Trader – yet another service meant for the untapped and emerging newcomers to global connectivity – and this implies that a pattern of unreliable behaviour has already established itself in the enduser’s mindset.

They embraced your shiny new bauble you launched for them with such fanfare and then you yanked it away.

This won’t be an issue only for Google, tbh, its a part of the design culture for the digital era. And one, perhaps that needs a momentary rethink when considering the next billions coming online.

There is a larger conversation here, I can tell, on design, process and methodology and its evolution in response to more greatly intertwined world we live in. On the internet, which is now ever more global, the flap of that butterfly’s wing can indeed reach further than you envisioned.

 

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