Facebook, Apple Place Bets to Shape the Future of Money

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Two announcements today by Apple and Facebook could represent a new path for how we pay for things, offline and on.

Facebook announced the evolution of Facebook Credits, the site's virtual currency, which is used in popular online games like Farmville. They will now require that social game developers process payments through Facebook Credits. Because games are so popular on Facebook -- CityVille has 100 million users -- they are probably the best trojan horse one could imagine for building out a new payment platform.

Meanwhile, Apple's got big plans to incorporate a new payment scheme into its next-generation iPhones and iPads. Apple could both cut its own costs and eventually become a key payment platform, "Today, the company pays credit-card processing fees on every purchase from iTunes," Bloomberg explains. "By encouraging consumers to use cheaper methods -- such as tapping their bank accounts directly, which is how many purchases are made via PayPal -- Apple could cut its own costs and those of retailers selling Apple products."

What we can see in these announcements is nothing smaller than a transformation of the way we buy things that could be as large as the move from checks and cash to credit and debit cards. These types of things require shifts in vast numbers of consumers, so don't expect things to happen quickly. The first rumblings of the charge card occured in the 1920s, but it wasn't until the late 1950s that the business started to take off, and it wasn't until decades after that that we saw credit cards become a ubiquitous form of payment.

Still, what we see here are the beginnings of a new payment ecosystem that could one day rival the vast networks of Visa, Mastercard, and all the smaller players that make swiping your card to pay for milk possible.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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