Bitcoin via SMS is here

Danny Bradbury
May 1, 2013 at 17:30 UTC
Updated Jul 4, 2013 at 09:09 UTC

A new service hopes to bring mobile bitcoin payments to the masses. The service, called Bits, has already demonstrated bitcoin payments made via text message from one mobile phone to another.

Conceived by Cody Burns, who was a front-end software developer at COG1, a San Francisco-based web and mobile app company, Bits enables payments via SMS, QR codes or tapping together phones with near-field communications (NFC) capabilities. The company promises “almost zero fees” for making and receiving payments, and says payments should be processed in under 10 minutes.

This isn’t the only service to offer mobile payments, however. Bitpay also has mobile checkout apps for Android and iOS, which allow the mobile phones to collect payments in person. However, that service requires customers to have a mobile bitcoin wallet to scan a custom QR code provided by the retailer (the QR code contains the bill details).

Similarly, Coinbase has a point-of-sale (PoS) solution that allows retailers to accept bitcoin using a mobile device. It features an Android app and a mobile website, and uses the same QR code mechanism. Scandinavian service BIPS also offers a mobile checkout solution.

The difference with the Bits system is that no mobile client is needed. Bits retailers and users begin their signup process simply by texting the word “SIGNUP” to a Bits-provided number.

Registered retailers display the Bits logo to indicate they can take payments via text message. Registered customers can then send a simple text message containing the retailer’s phone number, along with the amount to send and a short description of the item: for example, “send 3.50 to 505 xxx-xxx for chocolate bar”. Once the text is sent, the transaction is complete.

Bits demonstrated the process at this week’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York City by having a representative pay for a hot dog in Times Square.

One advantage of the Bits system is that it doesn’t require a native bitcoin wallet on a user’s smartphone. This will come as a relief to iPhone owners, who are prohibited by Apple’s strict App Store policy from installing bitcoin wallets on their phones.

Mobile payments have been possible in conventional currencies for some time now, thanks to companies like Square, which offers a mobile credit-card reader that plugs into a smartphone. But more bitcoin payment options are now becoming available for smartphones.

These services haven’t always run smoothly, however. For example, Paytunia, which offered a web and mobile browser-based wallet (and is owned by Paymium, which also operates Bitcoin Central) experienced a security breach in early April. A big Bitcoin Central hack also took place last week.

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.