PayPal tries rewiring e-commerce with new interface

eBay is trying to keep developers from straying to the Amazon fold with a new payments interface with more flexibility for new types of online purchases.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
4 min read

PayPal, eBay's well established but aging mechanism for online payments, is trying to rebuild itself for a new generation of online commerce possibilities.

At an event for press and developers on Thursday, PayPal and its partners described several new programming interfaces that are part of the company's upcoming Adaptive Payments Service and showed what developers can do with them.

For example, Microsoft will use the interface to enable payments within its forthcoming Azure cloud-computing service. And LiveOps' on-demand outsourcing service will use it to automatically handle fluctuating payment amounts and changes to who's being paid. Finally, the interface takes PayPal beyond the browser, opening it up for use on mobile phones, set-top boxes, and other increasingly smart devices.

"It's truly disruptive," said PayPal CEO Scott Thompson at the event. "It puts developers in the driver's seat by allowing you to do what you want to do and (choose) how you want to get paid."

The new service will be available to 300 PayPal partners starting Thursday, with a public beta this November--just in time for PayPal X Innovate 2009, its first developer conference.

PayPal is pitching the Adaptive Payments platform to developers as a way to more easily build PayPal-powered payment options into their applications. It's also a more streamlined version of PayPal's existing program for letting businesses manage transactions between several different parties.

The new payments service is a key part in PayPal's plan to double its revenues within the next three years. Back in March, PayPal's president Scott Thompson promised as much, saying that by 2011, the company should be doing somewhere between $100-120 billion in annual payments. PayPal has also had a fire lit underneath it since Amazon rolled out its own online payments service around this time last year. It let users make online purchases using billing information that was stored on Amazon.com

PayPal isn't just central to eBay's future. It will eclipse the company's auction and commerce operations, the company says.

"PayPal is a business that will be bigger than eBay," eBay Chief Executive John Donahoe said Thursday at the Fortune Brainstorm conference.

PayPal is a force to be reckoned with. On average, more than $2,000 goes through PayPal every second of each day. It has 75 million active accounts, and it's available in 190 markets and 19 different currencies.

Beta testing

Before the announcement, PayPal had been working with a handful of companies to test the new APIs (application programming interfaces). One of those companies is Microsoft, which is tapping PayPal for online payments in the Web applications built for the company's upcoming Azure platform.

At the unveiling, Yousef Khalidi, a Microsoft distinguished engineer, demonstrated an application that integrated PayPal's payment and billing functionality. It took only two days to integrate it into the existing product, Khalidi said.

Khalidi said that Microsoft plans to offer a simple way to build PayPal's mechanism into hosted applications as part of Azure's full release later this year.

Microsoft probably had an easier time choosing PayPal for its payment service than some of the alternatives: Amazon Flexible Payment Services and Google Checkout both come from companies in direct competition with Microsoft's Azure cloud-computing service.

Michael Ivey, CEO and co-founder of TwitPay, also took the stage to show his company's use of the new PayPal API--specifically to let people pay multiple people at once.

"In one transaction, I'm paying four different people," he said. Before the new APIs, the service would require users to make each payment as its own transaction.

Sites already using the new API include: Webassist, GroupCard, Lottay, Rainfall of Envelopes, and MedPayOnline.com

"PayPal will help you get paid for your innovations--your business will become our business," Thompson told the developers. "We view you as our third set of customers."

New features

The new payment service has a handful of new features designed to make it easier for developers to make money with their applications and services.

Thompson said that even if developers were acting as an intermediary between the person sending the money and the recipient, they would now be able to take their cut of that transaction--just as PayPal does.

Part of getting that to happen involves a new API that lets developers create peer-to-peer and business-to-business money-sharing applications. They can now also split up payments into several transactions and let users authorize a payment after the transaction's been made. Those two mechanisms can speed purchasing, regardless of whether the buyer is ready to pay the full amount at the outset.

As part of the new platform, PayPal also is changing the way fees are charged. Application developers can choose to have the sender of the money, not just the recipient, pay the fee.

In addition, the fee rates can be changed based on the type of purchase, which should ease the chore of handling both high-value transactions and micropayments (transactions below $12) within the same application. As it stands today, PayPal currently requires sellers to have two different accounts open, one for bigger payments and another for micropayments--and each has different rates.

People use PayPal today through a Web interface, but a new API will bring PayPal to nontraditional computing platforms including mobile phones, set-top boxes, and gaming consoles. That's important, given that those devices increasingly are networked and have their own ecosystems of applications. And moving to a browser can be disruptive to a user who just wants to make a quick payment.

Using PayPal that way also means that a developer must build the necessary user interface, though. PayPal didn't provide specifics on that element of the new payments system.

Overall, Thompson said the new payment system will help PayPal keep pace with changes in technology and business.

"The pace of innovation is just staggering," he said. "And the next wave of innovation is poised to move that much faster. "

CNET News reporter Ina Fried contributed to this report.