Announced last week based on the belief that "fragmentation of the payment landscape is limiting the full potential of the Web," the new working group will look to develop standards relating to web payment flows and the APIs that facilitate web payments.
Specifically, by November 2017, it intends to develop recommendations for the messages used to exchange payment data, payment flows, and the APIs that enable applications to implement these flows. Both credit push, debit pull and escrow payment schemes will be covered by the Web Payments Working Group's efforts. Examples of credit push payment methods include Bitcoin, and debit pull payment methods include credit cards.
The Web Payments Working Group will not be developing standards for digital wallets, although digital wallets can be a part of the payment flows. The working group is also not tasked with creating standards for the authentication mechanisms that are implicated in the payment flows; the W3C says it will create separate working groups to address this.
Too Late for Standards?
The W3C believes that payers, payees, web developers and payment service providers all stand to benefit from the recommendations it will make. It also suggests that new standards will help banks and mobile network operators better serve their customers and compete with upstarts in the payments space.
But will the standards and APIs it recommends actually be adopted in a meaningful way? That is hard to predict.
The payments space is highly competitive and many payment service providers already have highly-evolved payment flows and APIs. While the W3C says "checkout flows are traditionally complex and require many hours of development time to correctly implement," the reality is that API-centric payment upstarts like Stripe have gained significant traction by making it easy for developers to integrate efficient payment experiences into their applications without spending inordinate amounts of time. So some of the problems the Web Payments Working Group hopes to solve may not be as problematic as they are believed to be.
On the user experience side, the Web Payments Working Group notes that "users are led through very different flows every time they make a payment on the Web," which can create usability concerns. It hopes that its work will produce "a better checkout experience for users" and help reduce shopping cart abandonment.
But here too there are reasons to be skeptical. Online retailers have been investing heavily in user experience and the minimization of shopping cart abandonment for years, so despite the fact that experiences do vary, it's worth considering that online sellers who have the most to gain and lose have already made substantial progress in determining what works best for their specific customers.
All of this said, the development of standards for the APIs that connect web applications to underlying payment systems could prove to be beneficial as blueprints, particularly as it relates to promoting security best practices. Security, of course, is an increasingly important topic in online payments because of the growing costs of attacks and data breaches.
Additionally, because there are no standard web APIs for digital wallets, it's possible that even if the Web Payments Working Group's recommendations come too late to impact how credit card payments are handled in web and mobile applications, they could help drive adoption of standard payment flows and APIs for newer payment alternatives like Bitcoin.