To quote Captain Kirk in the classic Star Trek TV series, “Space, the final frontier”. This has been the premise of many a sci-fi movie and even real-world scientific exploration for decades now. We have just hit the tip of the iceberg in space exploration, even as our unmanned spacecraft are already doing flybys of Jupiter and Pluto, and even as the Mars rover supposedly found traces of life in the red planet. Beyond government-funded expeditions, the private sector has been increasingly active in exploring spaceflight, thanks to so-called space tourism and the early efforts by the Ansari X Prize and SpaceX in the past decade or so.
And gearing up for a possible colonization of other planets in the solar system, PayPal has launched its latest product: PayPal Galactic, which is done in partnership with the SETI Institute. “PayPal envisions exploring possibilities in space the way that we do, breaking boundaries to make real progress,” said Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute. After all, if there is, indeed, extra-terrestrial intelligence out there, we will need to find ways to have meaningful commerce and exchange with them.
The effort is far from practical at this point, although PayPal’s president, David Marcus, says PayPal Galactic is meant to ”increase public awareness of the important questions that need to be addressed.” Given this, he says “we won’t be using cash in space.” But since PayPal has already been at the forefront of online, mobile and cashless payments, the company feels it is in the best position to push payments “from our world to the next, and beyond.” There certainly won’t be any ATMs in space, in that case.
But why is PayPal suddenly pushing a payment system that is not yet practical nor useful at this time? The rare and lucky few who would be venturing to space are the astronauts and the occasional space-tourist, but that’s just about it. I doubt they’ll find the need to pay their bills while in space or pay some extra-terrestrial toll fees. Is PayPal too forward-looking, and has it preempted its own future business with the launch of PayPal Galactic? Some observers even think the idea is silly. Why not improve current payment solutions in developing nations?
I think it’s one way by which PayPal is keeping itself relevant amid a fast-changing world of mobile payments. While PayPal offers online and mobile payments, the system is still deeply rooted in bank accounts, credit cards and financial institutions, which are very old-world structures and technologies. Recently, mobile payment entrepreneur Scott Bales said that the next generation, the “digital natives,” will have a different concept of banking. While PayPal has paved the way for online payments, the future is a very different world.
Future citizens want instant gratification, instant payments, instant everything. Instead of having to go to a bank to open an account, this should be online. Instead of waiting for a check to clear, monetary value should be exchanged at the click of a mouse, tap of a screen, wave of a smartphone, or any other instant means. Can PayPal catch up to cashless and bank-less services like Movenbank and the slew of micro “banks” that have been popping up in the emerging markets?
How about Bitcoin, which promises to be the world’s first truly Internet-based currency? While PayPal has been rooted in US dollars and other real-world currencies, Bitcoin is its own money, and has its own value (whether it is “real” value is debatable, but the fact is that Bitcoin is being traded and exchanged as real money).
And then there are the non-bank based payment methods, such as carrier billing and virtual currencies. Take Apptivate, which lets you buy apps without a credit card, or even multi-currency payment gateway MOLpay.
Man has been exploring space since the 1960s, when Yuri Gagarin first launched outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. The idea of looking to the stars, and the possibility that we are not alone, has been around centuries before. It’s interesting that it is only now that PayPal is exploring the idea. But, yes, PayPal needs something to keep itself relevant and exciting, and space seems to be one of the better ways for the company to look to infinity and beyond.
Perhaps space-bound payment systems are one gap that startups might want to look into at this point, when space tourism is just around the corner.