One of the greatest uses of the Internet is commerce.
Aside from exchanging information like never before, many discovered how the web could change the exchange of goods and services.
Amazon.com began selling books and CDs, but expanded quickly into everything else. You can even have groceries delivered to your door through the company's website, at regular scheduled intervals.
eBay.com allowed anyone to buy anything in the largest continuous garage sale in history. Need to buy or sell Time magazines from the 1940s? A car? A whole palette of paperclips? A decommissioned nuclear missile silo?
Go to eBay. Someone has or wants it.
As money flew more and more freely in eBay transactions, the question of how to exchange money, and do it securely, became more important.
Elon Musk realized this and founded PayPal. The idea was so popular and lucrative that Musk now has enough money to live like a Bond villian, with a private fleet of rocketships and everything. I don’t think he has an island yet, but his Paypal partner Peter Thiel has spent $1.25 million on building some.
As the Internet moved from physical wires to radio waves, the commerce moved with it.
PayPal reported $4 billion in transaction from mobile devices in 2011.
Last year also brought the debut of the Square, a small plastic credit card reader that plugs into a smartphone and allows anyone to accept credit cards anywhere, for a 2.75 percent cut.
It allowed me to buy a few things with my debit card at the antique store in Big Sandy a few months ago.
PayPal announced their alternative two months ago, a small triangle called PayPal Here. You can tell it’s more efficient than the Square by its 25 percent reduction in sides.
But all of these methods still rely on totally out-dated 20th century technology, credit cards.
If we are exchanging invisible non-physical sums of money, why should we have to slide or read numbers off a small stealable piece of plastic?
That’s what Ben Milne was asking himself when he began the popular Iowa-based financial start up Dwolla.
Dwolla connects directly to your checking account, allowing transfers to go around credit card transactions and all their messy rules and fees.
It is proving popular with businesses as well. Instead of taking a percentage, or imposing a monthly fee, like many credit companies do to businesses now, Dwolla only asks for 25 cents on any transaction of more than $10. Transactions less than $10 are free for everyone.
It’s built with Internet, and particularly smartphone, use in mind. The app includes a map of all businesses near you that are registered with the service and can accept these easy payments.
While markers flood the rest of the country, Montana, as usual, is conspicuously empty. Three businesses — in Great Falls, Manhattan and Bozeman — accept Dwolla so far.
Hopefully the Hi-Line starts to catch on soon. Imagine browsing our Saturday Market in the summer, and paying our neighbors and local vendors for fresh veggies or baked goods with a smartphone screen tap.
As Dwolla still relies on existing banks and their user accounts, some groups are trying to go even further in going all digital.
In the wake of the massive bank frustration expressed during the Occupy protests, some are working to build all-digital 21st century financial institutions from scratch.
If PayPal’s now conservative-looking business model was able to bring about privatized space travel and all-electric sports cars, who knows how these nascent giants will shape the innovations of tomorrow?
I don’t, but I’m excited to find out.
(Zach White is a reporter with the Havre Daily News.)