Web Informant #138, 11 January 1999:
How I hate eWallets, let me count the ways


I hate using eWallets of all shapes and sizes. Because no matter which kind of eWallet I've tried to use to buy stuff on the Web, my record is unblemished: I have yet to get any of them to work flawlessly. In fact, I used to regularly demonstrate eWallets in my one-day eCommerce classes, to great pedagogical effect: I could always depend on something not working, an effective way to show aspiring storefront designers the folly of eWallets.

There are two general types of eWallets: those tied to traditional payment instruments, such as credit and debit cards, and those that are not. Examples of the former include Microsoft Wallet, which comes with Windows 98 (although you must install it separately); software from a start-up called, naturally, ewallet.com, which displays an imitation leather version on screen and comes with several dozen storefronts pre-loaded; and Citibank's virtual eWallet, which you can find at www.thecatalog.com.

The advantage with each of these wallets is that you use your existing credit card accounts -- the eWallet automatically enters the information that you would normally type in on the payment screen. The disadvantage is that you usually have to install some software to make the wallet work.

Citibank's approach is the most interesting approach of the three. You type your credit card information into a browser window, and it is then stored on a mainframe computer someplace, supposedly under heavy encryption. Then the wallet creates a Javascript bookmark. When you're ready to fill out the final payment screen, you bring up this bookmark, which figures out where you are, what information is needed, and then completes the screen for you. Without the bookmark though, you can't do any shopping with Citibank's wallet.

It did work, the second time I tried it, provided I closed all browser windows except the one storefront where I was shopping. And by the way, Citibank only supports Netscape v4.0 or later browsers: users of Internet Explorer need not apply.

There are also eWallets tied to specific payment systems, such as Cybercash, Digicash (which recently went into Chapter 11), and GlobeSET.

The disadvantage of these eWallets is that you must first exchange your hard-earned cash for the Internet Bongo Bucks that each vendor uses. Once you do this, the monetary value is stored on your hard disk. That is a problem, particularly if you do you eShopping from multiple machines. Those of us that have a hard enough time keeping track of where we left our physical wallet aren't going to be thrilled about this. You could also be out some real dough if your disk crashes. Although each vendors has a way to restore eBucks if your hard disk crashes, it doesn't always work, and sometimes you have to call and try to convince the vendor to restore the funds, a sticky process.

The reason for eWallets' miserable record is that each online storefront has designed its payment screen somewhat differently, and getting the correct information transmitted is hard work. Some require you to specify shipping methods, or gift wrap choices, or to confirm the purchase, or to put in your account code.

There is yet another issue with both kinds of eWallets: not every storefront accepts every wallet, making the experience a potential nightmare for shoppers. Imagine going shopping at a (physical) mall store and getting ready to pay, only to find out that the store accepts one obscure credit card issued by a single bank in Tuvalu. How long do you think that store would stay in business?

In the meantime, I continue to do my shopping online the old fashioned way: by typing in credit card information every time I order something. Of course, leading eMerchants like Amazon.com and CDnow.com record my credit card number and keep it on file on their own site. That is a better solution that any eWallet I've seen, and it keeps me coming back. And that is what shopping -- online or off -- is all about.

Site-keeping and self-promotions dep't

If you want to read more about eWallets, turn to this week's ComputerWorld and see the op/ed piece I wrote for them on the subject. E-wallets: Not the right solution for E-shopping.

David Strom
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