Developers at some of the top tech companies have created a browser API that could soon make it easier to buy goods and services online with cryptocurrency.
The work, started by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) with the help of Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple and Mozilla, is a tangible step forward for a currency-agnostic web payment standard first conceived in 2013. Equally, as bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies gain more momentum, the launch signifies the growing recognition of cryptocurrency as a payments technology.
Indeed, the W3C has gotten more interested in blockchain technologies over the years, hosting its first ever blockchain workshop in June last year. But while participants were left with interest in standardizing and democratizing the technology's use, no formal work was decided upon then. That, however, has changed.
Announced on Thursday, the API is currently being implemented in browsers including Google's Chrome, Microsoft's Edge, Apple’s Webkit, Mozilla’s Firefox, the Samsung Internet Browser and Facebook's in-app browser. When activated, the Payment Request API will allow new payment types, including bitcoin, ether any any other available cryptocurrency (as well as more traditional online payment methods) to be stored directly in the browser.
Consumers will then be able to choose from a drop-down menu of available payment methods supported, a kind of expansion on the auto-fill feature already widely enabled at checkout.
And with that, Ian Jacobs, head of the W3C's payments activity, said now's a good time for developers to start writing code for payment methods they'd like to see available.
In an exclusive interview, Jacobs told CoinDesk:
"This is a great opportunity for people to start writing blockchain-based payment method descriptions and to try to test the API. That's sort of the period that we're in, the test and interoperability development phase."
A stable state
The API, and the W3C's call for the "broad implementation" of it, is based on what the group sees as a way to offer consumers more payment options and merchants a more secure online checkout.
As part of that growth, the WebKit browser engine that powers Safari and Apple’s App store earlier this month moved the status of its work from "under consideration" to "in development," though other more advanced stages still lie ahead.
"The specification has matured enough within the W3C process that we’ve moved from draft state to stable state," said Jacobs, who added:
"And that means, now we know what the API is going to do, and we are building test suites and working on browser interoperability so the implementations are secure and they behave the same way."
The W3C's standardization efforts are notoriously slow moving, with work advancing from community groups to interest groups to working groups, all of which can take years. This is one of the reasons cryptocurrency entrepreneurs have been hesitant to join the group's ranks, even though the Tim Berners-Lee created consortium has quite the reputation.
Not so fast
But, the process ahead isn't as easy as it sounds.
Jacobs compared the next steps to matchmaking, where merchants will need to integrate the API and pick which payment methods they want to accept. At this stage, customers will need to download the browser extension and signal what payment methods they use.
In other words, merchants need to build websites that acknowledge the new payment methods, while users need to have wallets that "speak the protocol that were writing," Jacobs said. "That’s how the ecosystem pieces together the merchant-side and the user-side."
The W3C is already working with third-party payments apps to integrate both cryptocurrency and non-credit card forms of payment into the API in a way that can be interpreted by merchants and consumers.
"So, for example, you might identify a particular bitcoin payment method with a URL, and then people can distribute payment apps that declare their support for that payment method," Jacobs said.
The Web Payment Working Group’s next face-to-face meeting on the browser-based API is scheduled for November 6 and 7, with a demo scheduled to take place on October 23 to show how Airbnb, Google and Mastercard are using the API.
Jacobs, optimistic about the recent step forward, concluded:
"You will begin to see early adopters of the API using it and you will see an increase in browser support over time that I’m hoping by the middle of next year it’s widely deployed."
by Michael del Castillo A full-time member of the Editorial Team at CoinDesk, Michael covers bitcoin and blockchain applications. His writing has been published in the New Yorker, Silicon Valley Business Journal and Upstart Business Journal. Michael is not an investor in any digital currencies or blockchain projects. He has previously held value in bitcoin (See: Editorial Policy). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Michael: @delrayman