Images: Ashwin Rodrigues

​The Cost of Being an Early Adopter

Two years after crowdfunding the Coin credit card replacement, I received it. It's already outdated, but I reviewed it anyway.

Nov 13 2015, 3:10pm

Images: Ashwin Rodrigues

$50 is the most I've ever thrown down as a direct consequence of a YouTube video.

When I preordered a Coin device in November of 2013, I thought I was putting $50 down to be part of the future. The YouTube video explained how I could get rid of all the bulk of my credit cards, in exchange for this cool gadget that looked like an AMEX Black card, the most prestigious way to take on debt. Coin's slogan: "One Coin. For all your cards."

Did I really need a device to consolidate my credit cards? Technically, I only had one credit card. But if you counted my debit card, I had two. So I had an opportunity to lighten my wallet by 50 percent of my credit* cards, and gain a fancy piece of technology in the process. I couldn't afford not to.

Fifty dollars. One Coin. For my two cards. I had to wait until summer 2014.

Coin exceeded its initial $50k crowdfunding goal in 40 minutes on November 10th, 2013, according to CNN. This seemed like a great opportunity to "get in on the ground floor" before Coin became a household technology, reaching dictionary-level ubiquity like the Xerox machine or the iPod.

A prompt 16 days later, my preorder was placed. I was an early adopter. Just like that, I was in the Coin Backer's Club.

Something told me this information wasn't as secret as marketed.

I polled my other tech-minded friends if they knew about Coin.

"Oh, you haven't heard about it?"

I mastered a tone that was both enthusiastic and condescending. I gave them my short description, which I had gleaned from the YouTube video. I shared my referral code, which would give me 5 bucks off or something. I can't remember the perk, because no one used my code. I didn't have the brand influence. Not yet.

As I waited for my Coin, payment methods powered by NFC (near-field communications) began to gain traction, in the form of Google Wallet (now Android Pay) and Apple's ApplePay. It seemed that my investment had already become worthless. However, NFC payment is still far from ubiquitous. (In 2012, it didn't seem insane that a joint venture focused on NFC between AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile was called the Isis Mobile Wallet; it eventually was renamed and then disbanded.)

Fast forward through a few emails from Coin detailing delays in production, and many months later, to August 13, 2015. An email from Coin gave me the good news: My device was finally shipping.

On August 26th, 2015, Coin announced it was taking pre-orders for a new version of its product, Coin 2.0. This new version incorporates NFC, as well as the EMV (chip and pin) credit card technology that is increasingly prevalent in new credit cards. My early adopter status seemed to be disintegrating.

And this one, they promise, is future-proof.

A few days after Coin 2.0 was announced, I received my Coin 1.0. This was a frustrating sequence of events. Like some version of Moore's Law, the thing I crowdfunded two years ago was pretty much outdated by the time I got it. Hardware cannot be physically updated with a push over WiFi, and I appreciate how any company making physical, "IRL" goods has to take that into account.

To its credit, Coin offered a free upgrade to all Coin 1.0 owners, and my Coin 2.0 should ship in Q1 2016. Could I trust this deadline? I've been hurt before.

At this time, I also started watching Mr. Robot, and my paranoia of anything with an electronic signal was peaking. Sure, I'll swipe all my credit cards through a dongle to enter them into an app and then connect this card to my phone via low energy Bluetooth in order to save a few micrograms of weight and try to look cool. Still, I was worried someone could "spoof my Bluetooth packets" and intercept all my payment information, effectively stealing my identity and defrauding me of all cash and credit.

I'm pretty sure that's not possible. But to be honest, I don't know. The Coin FAQ has many Qs answered, but "How does it work?" is not one of them. As Coin promised, the card would not work unless my phone was connected via Bluetooth (though the 2.0 version is a standalone device), and within close range, so my fears were partially appeased.

I waited nearly two years for this thing, and now it was here. While I didn't really care about it anymore, sunk costs were incurred, and I illogically wanted to recoup them. So I tried using my new device.

Using the Coin

Here is what Coin sends you.

This dongle is how you enter cards into the Coin app, then into your Coin device.

I planned on using the Coin exclusively, leaving my other cards safe at home, but this notification told me it wouldn't work out very well.

Standing in line at a bakery in SoHo, I had the anxiety of a teen queued up at a liquor store. When I presented my Coin card to the cashier, he looked at it, swiped it, and it did not work. I tried to explain how Coin worked, as though this would fix his cash register. Another employee came over and glanced at my card. "Oh yeah we don't take this card. We've had a few customers try to use it," he said. "It doesn't work." I panicked, apologized, and quickly produced another credit card from my wallet to complete the transaction.

For my next Coin transaction, I was at one of those sketchy ATM machines you're not supposed to use because your card information may get swiped. A machine may steal my identity, but it wouldn't embarrass me if the transaction didn't go through. It worked after three swipes.

This is my "smug early adopter" face.

Over the course of about a week, I used this card for roughly 25 transactions, the majority of which worked. As I became more confident in the technology, I didn't mind waiting for the extra swipe, or waiting to see if the transaction would even go through. You realize, as an early adopter, that you're also part brand ambassador. Each transaction was a product demo.

Some people clearly didn't give a shit as I explained, "It's actually pretty cool, you can store multipl-" before they handed me a receipt and silently told me to fuck off.

The Coin introduced a level of uncertainty where I previously was confident. I am no longer in college—I wasn't worried about my debit card payment for two slices of pizza going through without error. But now, each payment was a gamble. Would it go through? The presentation of a bill was accompanied by a small adrenaline rush.

What happens when you repeatedly press your Coin, without your phone paired with it.

During my trial period, I was out for a 2:30 AM brunch on Saturday morning with a couple friends. I decided that I would pick up the check, if it worked on my Coin. Luckily for my friends, and Coin, and me, it worked, and I derived a great deal of joy from the simple fact that I had successfully made a payment.

In my trials, I kept track of what point-of-sale system each store/bar/cafe was using, so I could anticipate future performance of my Coin device. When I went to my neighborhood donut store back in Seattle, I was told their Dinerware system accepted the card no problem. The guy working there also told me Dinerware was a very common POS system.

However, going to lunch at an Italian restaurant by Pike Place Market, my Coin was not accepted, and the bartender noted they used Dinerware, which was a very uncommon system. I wasn't sure if he was being sarcastic. Was he making fun of my cool credit card from the future?

Over the course of the trial, I found myself slowly changing how I approached paying with a Coin. At first, I was more nervous, and would be relieved when payment went through. There was one transaction at my local burger joint where the Coin took more than a few seconds to unlock. I panicked again, and paid with another card.

However, the more I used it, the more this behavior changed. I would become irritated when it didn't work. "Just wait, it's unlocking," I found myself telling the Whole Foods cashier, as I simultaneously held a phone conversation. The payment went through. I had become too powerful.

Coin 1.0 is designed to work like any other magnetic-strip card.

In my final, and most satisfying transaction, I decided to stop by my favorite fried chicken spot to buy two drumsticks. As I pressed the button on the Coin to unlock it, the girl behind the counter asked what I was doing. I explained I was unlocking the device, and I could store multiple cards on it.

"Is this the card for if you have a lot of money?" she asked, mistakenly thinking it was an Amex Black card. (I assume.)

I told her it wasn't. "That's really cool," she said, still was amused with this non-rich person card.

I thanked her, and we bid each other a good night. As I exited the building and began eating on the way home, my eyes were met with not two, but three beautiful fried drumsticks.

Am I to believe that I'd be blessed with an extra drumstick had the Coin device not sparked a conversation? Probably not. At this point, a $50 purchase in 2013 had earned me an extra piece of fried chicken two years later, so it all seemed worth it.

Coin: My Two Cents (nice!)

If it doesn't work 100 percent of the time, it might as well not work at all. The company says it's "One Coin. For all your cards." But really, it's "One Coin, and all your cards."

At its best, Coin is a piece of plastic that will replace a few pieces of plastic. At its worst, Coin is a piece of plastic that doesn't work, one that you carry in addition to your current plastic collection.

It doesn't seem worth getting as worked up as this guy, who bombed Coin's YouTube channel.

Between ordering my Coin and having it reach my hands, I lost my credit cards more than four times. That's a reflection on me, not the technology, but brings up an important point. Since the card only works when connected via low-energy Bluetooth to your phone, the Coin is for someone who has their shit together, at least a little bit. Otherwise, it will definitely end up being more of an inconvenience than anything else.

But it's not really about convenience. If you like having something most people don't have, and enjoy describing how it works (especially to cashiers and bartenders) this is the gadget for you, the Early Adopter. Pray for extra fried chicken, but prepare for using a backup.