The anxiety hasn’t worn off yet. I’ve used the Stratos credit card for three weeks now and I’m still unsure if it will work for every transaction. It makes me nervous. That’s a problem for a device that promises to consolidate credit cards. For now, until the anxiety subsides, I’m carrying the Stratos card and all of my plastic cards and that defeats the point.
The Stratos is an early player in a new category of devices. It’s a sort of universal credit card that aims to consolidate all the plastic cards in your wallet. To use a certain credit card, the owner simply taps one of the hidden buttons or selects one on the mobile app. When it works, it’s magic. When it doesn’t, it’s just another card to carry.
The Stratos failed to work about 5 percent of the time. And that’s a problem. Payment devices like Stratos, Apple Pay and Coin need to work every time. One failed interaction will cast doubt in the user’s mind. It was hard to predict when a transaction would fail, too. It worked at Starbucks. Home Depot and 7-Eleven accepted it. Chase ATMs worked fine, but a generic ATM at a bodega failed to read it. A couple of waiters returned it to me, annoyed that I gave them a business card instead of a credit card. When I assured them it was a VISA, they tried to run it and returned it to me asking for another form of payment.
So far the Stratos hasn’t reduced the amount of credit cards I carry.
The hardware is stunning. The Stratos is as thin as a standard credit card, but packs years of innovations. The Michigan-based company just launched the device and spent the last three years building the product. Unlike Coin, a similar universal credit card, the Stratos doesn’t look nor feel electronic. The casing is seamless and smooth. Quickly tap the card on a hard surface (like a phone, hand or countertop) and the card jumps to life, with lights flashing next to hidden buttons. The user has a few seconds to select a loaded credit card. If this action is done on a connected phone, a clever lockscreen menu lets the owner select even more plastic cards.
You see, the Stratos can only hold three credit cards, but the app can hold an unlimited amount. Owners select one of the three pre-loaded cards using three buttons on the Stratos. Compared to the Coin or upcoming Plastc, this seems like a major limitation as those devices store an unlimited number of cards, but I never found this to be an issue. I loaded my debit card and two loyalty cards onto my Stratos and stored several rarely used cards on the app. It only takes a few moments to swap the cards.
Flip the Stratos over, and the card’s secret sauce is revealed.
The company is actually in active talks with retailers to allow customers to instantly add a loyality card. The Stratos Card’s backend was built with this in mind. The company’s founders envisions a platform like iTunes but for credit cards. If you want to add, say, a Nordstrem’s loyality card, an owner will be able to instantly load it onto their Stratos Card. The logical endpoint is that consumers might be able to apply for a credit card and instantly have access through the Stratos Card.
There are two magnetic strips on the back. Stratos co-founder and CEO Thiago Olson explained to me that this allows the card to be used in more types of credit card readers, which is something the Coin lacks. Yet even with these two strips, I had trouble using the Stratos. It hasn’t worked everywhere as promised.
The Stratos works most of the time. I suspect it’s worked for about 95 percent of my transactions. But when it doesn’t, things go sour fast when the clerk attempts to process your payment. They get annoyed. And you, who are just trying to pay for your coffee, have to explain that it’s a new type of universal credit card, smile, and then hand over the original credit card to complete the transaction.
Troubles continued at smaller retailers where clerks have to input the last four digit of the credit card into their card payment processor.
Troubles continued at smaller retailers where clerks have to input the last four digit of the credit card into their card payment processor. You see, there isn’t a display on the Stratos, so you, the Stratos user, need to use the smartphone companion app to retrieve that information. From there, you have to either hand over the phone or read off the numbers to the clerk, who at this point is annoyed and unimpressed with your fancy credit card.
Is a smaller wallet worth these troubles?
I talked to Stratos co-founder Thiago Olsen about my troubles. He envisions Stratos Card users to carry both the Stratos and their usual plastic cards for the first week or two until trust has been developed. I’m still not there.
He said the company diligently watches data collected that indicates among other things, the amount of times a retailer swipes the card. The goal is, of course, one swipe. On edge cases, he says, they have data that shows occasionally cards are swiped over three times before the payment is accepted. This data allows the company to address mass issues or specific bad Stratos Card. When my card works, it works. But sometimes, with certain machines, it simply doesn’t.
Stratos isn’t the only device attempting to lighten our credit card load. Coin is a similar device, sporting a tiny e-ink screen that addresses some of the inherent problems with the screen-less Stratos. But Coin isn’t perfect either. The Coin’s build quality is shoddy compared to Stratos. Like the Stratos, Coin isn’t accepted everywhere. Apple Pay has acceptance issues, too, which begs the question if the world is ready to change how consumers pay for goods.
Credit cards are ubiquitous and generally accepted everywhere. Devices like Stratos and Coin attempt to piggyback off the established credit card network. But it’s still a physical device and therefore has similar issues. It can be lost, stolen and you still need to carry it with you. Stratos addresses these issues with clever schemes. For instance, if the Stratos Card is separated from a designated smartphone for a specified time, it will lock the card until the smartphone reconnects with it.
The Stratos Card costs $95 per year. With that comes free annual card upgrades, and the company tells me that it’s toiling away on a Stratos Card with chip-and-pin technology. This subscription model allows the company to dole out upgraded cards en masse, ensuring all Stratos customers have the latest and greatest technology without trying to convince them to purchase another.
Carrying multiple plastic cards is not the scourge of the world but the experience can be improved. Stratos could be the company to do it, too. The company has built an amazing product that, with a bit of work, could be a game changer. But for now weeks after its launch, the Stratos Card is simply not perfect to fully replace your plastic cards.