Technology is a conquerer. The evidence can be seen in mounds of dead pagers, flip phones, and CDs. When companies and startups agree to kill something off, it’s usually not long for this world. But one piece of tech has become an unkillable cockroach—the credit card.
Apple has Apple Pay. Samsung has Samsung Pay. Google’s working on Android Pay. Each promises to let you use your phone instead of carrying a wallet. But it’s hard to beat the simplicity of the credit card—which is why a legion of startups are preparing to loose smart cards into the world this summer. There’s Coin, Plastc, Swyp, and Final. And of course, there’s Stratos: the smart card I’ve been trying for the past week.
Each of these smart card options have a similar promise—you can condense all your Visas, Mastercards, gift cards and loyalty cards into a single Bluetooth-enabled “credit card” that does it all. Basically, anything you use to buy shit, you can put on this card.
That promise is great. The reality is less so.
For a near $100 annual fee, Stratos gives you a snazzy personalized card today, and a new and improved card every year. (Chip and PIN, anyone?). Today’s card already looks cool, has a nice matte finish, and even has blinky lights to help you select which of your many cards it’s currently standing in for. (Blinky lights always scream “FUTURE.”) I even got a peek inside the card itself. It’s so packed with circuits and radios that it reminded me of glimpsing inside a finely crafted watch.
The most impressive part: it’s no thicker than a regular credit card.
To start using the Stratos, you swipe your existing cards into a proprietary app using an included card reader dongle that connects to your phone’s audio jack. Once all your cards are swiped in, you physically tap the card against a surface to wake it up and establish a Bluetooth connection, and then it’s ready to go.
The Stratos card reader, which helps you put your existing cards in the app
Want the Stratos to act like a different card instead? Two quick taps and you can select from your top three most-used cards—then just touch one of the three capacitive buttons on Stratos to select it. The Stratos doesn’t have a display to tell you which button corresponds to which card, but you can see that easily enough on your phone: when you double-tap, it sends a push notification to your phone which tells you which cards are currently stored. Like this:
Need to use a Starbucks giftcard or something else you wouldn’t use on the regular? You can swap cards you have saved in the Stratos app from your phone. Open the app, and drag and drop the card into a “Priority Slot” for quick use or replace one of your top three card slots. If your smartphone dies—it happens!—the Stratos Card can still work just fine with the three stored cards. You’ll just be stuck with those three until you can get your phone juiced up.
So far, so good. But the real shortcomings show up when you start using the thing. The reason why old magstripe cards are so hard to kill is because they just work—unless you’ve de-magnetized it or some ne’er-do-well has emptied your bank account coffers. Those things have happened to me just once in my many years of owning a credit card. Want to know how many times my Stratos Card didn’t work in the last week? (Hint: more than once.)
For example, I decided to take an out-of-my-league date to a nice cocktail bar after work one day. I hand the card over to the bartender to keep my tab open and to keep the drinks flowing. Later when we’d finished our collective fifth margarita, I decided to close out. What unfolded is a one-act play I call “Um, Your Card’s Not Working.”
Darren walks up to a bartender cleaning some glasses.
“Can I close my tab?”
“Last name, Orf. O-R-F.”
“Um, your card’s not working.” Bartender inspects Darren’s strange piece of plastic for a card number (of which there isn’t any).
“Here, let me see.” Darren taps the card on the bar. “Try now?”
“Yeah, it’s still not working.”
Date looks inquisitively at Darren.
“Ok, just...just use this card.” Darren fishes out a normal card and it works great.
This scenario also played out in other locales like coffee houses and restaurants. Almost any time I had to physically hand my card over, I ran into problems. When I was personally swiping the card, at a nearby bodega or getting some cash out of an ATM, the card worked as advertised since I knew the whole tap-to-wake maneuver and could quickly swipe right after. In those glorious moments, it felt like the future of payments.
Otherwise, it felt... risky.
Honestly, the card is cool and I wanted to like it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was also a solution to a non-problem for me—removing three or four pieces of plastic in my wallet wasn’t really worth the added inconvenience. While Apple Pay and its kin aim to blow up your wallet entirely, the Stratos Card is a compromise between credit card existence and complete plastic annihilation.
First, I still need my wallet as a place to keep the card, not to mention my Metro cards, health insurance cards, etc. Second, that tap-to-wake function is a real Achilles heel. If you give your card to a bartender or a waiter, it just isn’t gonna work unless you take the time to describe this weird technology to them. It made me want to keep my old cards in my wallet just in case, which then defeats the purpose of Stratos entirely.
Aside from these glaring usability issues, the Stratos Card really suffers from the same thing that all emerging technology suffers from—normal people don’t know what the hell it is—and without massive, widespread adoption, that’s not really going to change. You’ll continue hearing the familiar phrase “Um, your card’s not working.”
The cockroach lives on.
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