Yep, here’s another card that promises to consolidate all your credit cards into one. But unlike the others, the Stratos Card appears to be worth a longer look.
Stratos, the company behind the card, has a novel approach and has seemingly worked through all the niggles so far associated with universal credit cards. And best yet, the Stratos is on pace to ship the card next month.
Stratos was founded in 2012 and has since grown to 50 people. The founders chose to raise over $7 million from venture capitalists rather than pursuing crowdfunding cash. And for good reason. This let the company quietly build and develop the technology, brand and marketing. As of today the company and product is relatively unknown and thus doesn’t have the immense public pressure that often plagues crowdfunding gadgets — like one of Stratos’ closest competitor, Coin.
A few weeks ago I sat down with the Stratos team in its new Ann Arbor, Mich., office to see how the Stratos Card works. Stratos co-founder and CEO Thiago Olson walked me through the setup process. The card ships with a mag-strip reader that snaps into a smartphone’s 3.5mm port. Load the app and swipe your cards to add them to the system. CTO Henry Balanon assured me that the card’s key information is not transmitted to Stratos’ servers. The only data the company gets is the contact information associated with the card, which they use to fulfill a legal requirement to verify the owner.
Once they scan their cards, owners select three to be accessed directly on the Stratos. Card information is encrypted and stored locally on the phone. Through a novel lock screen interaction, any of the cards can be quickly selected and loaded onto the card when needed and without having to load the app.
When it’s time to select one of their cards from the Stratos, users tap it (as shown in the video below) and press one of the three buttons, which correspond to one of their cards. Additional cards can be selected through a connected smartphone’s lock screen. The Stratos Card can then be swiped like a normal credit card.
There are two magnetic strips on the back of the Stratos, which is technology that the company developed to enable the card to work in every type of card reader. Olson tells me that competitors lack this ability.
Instead of selling the universal credit cards, customers obtain the card through a subscription service. This is perhaps the company’s secret sauce. For $95 a year (or $149 for two), Stratos will provide a personalized card to customers and replace the card with the latest model after a year of use. The company expects to start shipping in April.
Inside the Stratos Card is a printed circuit board and wafer-thin Li-ion battery that’s good for two years. Everything is encased in a waterproof housing that passed ISO 7810 and 7816 tests, including bend, static shock and abrasion tests. Put another way, the Stratos can take the same type of abuse as a Visa.
Security is clearly a concern. Along with using bank-level encryption, the Stratos Card has proximity alerts built in. Owners can set the card to be disabled if it’s been separated for a set amount of time from the proximity of the owner’s phone.
During my meeting with the company, I wondered about pin-and-chip technology. Stratos has a clever solution for that, as well, they tell me, but they didn’t go into much detail only to say that as part of the Stratos subscription, customers get one free upgrade or replacement per year. It’s currently working on the technology and expects to have it available soon. When the chip and pin Stratos Card is available, customers will get a card with the technology during their next upgrade cycle.
Stratos is not alone in attempting to build a universal credit card. Another company called Coin raised millions through a crowdfunding campaign but has so far failed to live up to its promises. Another, Plastc, promises to ship its product this summer and is currently accepting pre-orders for $155. Plastc promises that at launch, its card will support Visa, MasterCard and American Express accounts, have pin-and-chip compatibility and include the ability to remotely wipe a card.
So far Stratos has raised $7 million in funding from Midwest and West Coast investors. San Francisco-based Toba Capital led the company’s latest round with Western Technology Investment, Hyde Park Venture Partners, and Michigan-based Resonant Venture Partners also participating.
Stratos has clearly developed a thorough product. From the mobile app to the physical product to the subscription model, the company has thought of everything. But I’m not sure that it’s providing an answer to a legitimate problem.
Universal credit cards are hitting the market just as mobile carriers and phone makers are rolling out usable mobile wallets. Apple has found a good amount of success with Apple Pay and Google and Samsung are seriously upgrading their offerings. Consumers will soon have a bevy of options available, which might cloud the space with confusion. But physical credit cards are not something that will quickly disappear and perhaps companies like Stratos, Coin and Plastc can get while the getting’s good.