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Now is the time for a universal digital wallet–and Google can’t make it happen on its own

May 11, 2022, 7:00 PM UTC
Technology advances and a global pandemic have accelerated the acceptance of digital payments and IDs.
Al Seib - Los Angeles Times - Getty Images

Over the last 15 years, mobile phones have become far more than communication devices. Billions of people now use smartphones for daily navigation, entertainment, and shopping, while relying on them to hold credit cards, event tickets, and boarding passes.

Across the world, people are now ready for a digital wallet–and certainly more so than they were a decade ago. One constant across regions has been the digitization of cards, tickets, and passes, increasing the need for a single centralized place for them on the phone. COVID-19 has accelerated the acceptance of contactless transactions and opened doors for new digital items such as virtual vaccination cards, car keys, and IDs.

Now that it’s clear that any physical item that people carry has the potential to become digital and sit inside phones, a digital wallet to hold them is no longer optional–it’s imperative. Everywhere we look, the infrastructure is coming online: Wireless payment terminals are everywhere, government agencies support digitized IDs, and hotels, cars, and homes are increasingly using digital keys. Nine countries have already launched official digital currencies, and over 70 more are either piloting, developing, or researching them.

A new stage of information management

More than 300 years ago, physical wallets evolved from leather coin pouches to hold early printed currency and cards. Now wallets must evolve alongside the objects they carry.

Digital wallets improve upon their physical predecessors with superior security and privacy, while more conveniently integrating with the online services we all use.

To create a universal digital wallet we need to go beyond reimagining the way you carry money, cards, keys, and personal documents, and rethink the forms of those assets. We believe developers deserve to easily create digital objects for multiple devices, and consumers deserve quick, secure, and consistent access to their assets.

If digital wallets aren’t universally accessible, however, we will succeed in digitizing everything, but fail to provide access to everyone. As the world moves into a new stage of digital payments and information management, we must be intentional in connecting people and businesses to the digital economy. This is a core Google tenet: We believe everyone, everywhere deserves access to digital information.

The importance of universal access

Having worked in the financial services sector for over 20 years, I know that the industry sometimes falls short of designing inclusive, accessible technologies.

Universal access means prioritizing accessibility from the onset–and thinking big. Google built Android to power smartphones across a wide variety of sizes and prices. That commitment to supporting everyone made Android the most popular mobile platform with more than three billion active devices around the world.

Building a digital wallet to support every potential user will also require openness and affordability. Just as physical cash, cards, and keys work regardless of where you store them, a digital wallet should not be proprietary to a single brand, tightly coupled with a specific payment method, or even be expensive to access.

The transformative powers of a digital wallet first became clear in emerging markets. Throughout Asia, people leapfrogged from using cash to mobile payments, which easily connected individuals with small and large businesses without requiring expensive infrastructure.

In places where banks are hard to access, digital wallets drive financial inclusion making it easier for people to send money home to support their families and enabling governments to streamline aid disbursement, so seniors and other vulnerable citizens won’t have to physically retrieve and deposit pieces of paper.

Western consumers are ready

Across Europe and North America, digital wallets have primarily focused on facilitating seamless, secure payments. Pandemic-related shifts in lifestyle mean this trend will accelerate–and go beyond payments.

For example, last year we worked with organizations like The Commons Project Foundation to give Android users who have access to SMART Health Cards a simple and secure way to save their COVID-19 vaccination records to their Android device.

Ultimately, government recognition is what digital IDs require to be accepted for a broad set of uses.

Digital wallets aren’t just about reducing your need to carry around physical assets. It also means fast and secure access. It eliminates the friction of searching pockets, purses, and sofas by holding everything together protected with biometrics, and makes them instantly ready for physical and digital use.

Your digital wallet will let you quickly tender insurance at a hospital, cruise through airline security with your digital boarding pass, or rapidly provide trusted proof of age when entering venues. For the “invisible billion” who cannot prove their identity, a wallet on their phones holding digital IDs would mean equal access to government services, and freedom to safely escape from personal or national emergencies.

No single company can achieve this alone. Organizations and governments must work together to ensure that we create secure, comprehensive, universal solutions that work for everyone, everywhere. 

Bill Ready is the president of Commerce, Payments & Next Billion Users at Google.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com Commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors, and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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