by Al Sacco

Two Reasons to Hate iPad Payment Terminals (UPDATED)

Oct 09, 20134 mins
AndroidConsumer ElectronicsiOS's Al Sacco shares two reasons to think twice before tapping away on that iPad-based payment system at your local coffee shop or retailer.

UPDATE: Blue Bottle Coffee just reached out to me and asked that I share a comment. It’s posted below. As for the tip percentages mentioned in this post and referenced by Blue Bottle’s Communications Specialist Byard Duncan, who sent the comment, I was fairly certain the percentages were higher, and I know I left the coffee shop feeling miffed that I’d given the barista a much bigger tip than he deserved. But I could be mistaken about the specific percentages.

From Blue Bottle: 

“Your article inspired a conversation among our East- and West Coast head retail managers about implementing a system for hourly cleaning of our iPad terminals….As far as your tipping comments go, we feel compelled to make two crucial corrections to your piece…these percentages are set by Square as the minimum tip percentage for purchases over $10; we’re working with Square (who has been an excellent and flexible partner in this process) to build in more capabilities here. But to be clear, Blue Bottle does not have the capability to lower these percentages on our own….As far as the increments go, ours increase by 5 percent, not 10 percent. Moreover, they start at 15 percent, not 25 percent. They are 15, 20 and 25 percent.”

iPad, iPads everywhere. In hospitals, retail stores, conference rooms and coffee shops.

They all serve a purpose. And, thanks to Apple’s knack for sleek, futuristic design, they all look pretty cool too.

iPad Square Stand payment germs

But the novelty of using iPads to pay for goods or services, or any tablets for that matter—I single out the iPad because it’s the most-commonly-used tablet—wore thin for me the first time I stood in a long line at a Blue Bottle Coffee shop in San Francisco, watching all kinds of unwashed hipster-types tapping and sliding their digits across iPad displays to sign for credit-card payments. Yuck.

I’ve read countless research reports during the past years about smartphones being veritable petri dishes, slicked with all kinds of nasty funk. One recent report found that the average smartphone or tablet is dirtier than the average toilet seat.

When was the last time you willingly rubbed your finger on an unfamiliar toilet seat—or even a familiar one?

Another recent study found that iPads used within medical clinics and presumably surrounded by all kinds of nasty airborne stuff are no dirtier than the average college student’s iPad.

Yet, these iPad- and tablet-based payment terminals continue to get more and more popular, thanks largely to the Square payment service, which makes it simple to use an iOS or Android device to record and receive credit-card payments, and the company’s nifty Square Stand, pictured above.

On a recent trip to New York, I stopped by the Blue Bottle Coffee location in Rockefeller Center, ordered a cappuccino and got a dirty look in return when I asked if I could pay without touching the communal iPad screen. The mustachioed, fedora-sporting barista just couldn’t understand why I was being so difficult. Harumph.

The cleanliness issue is one reason I’m not a fan of the iPad payment terminals. (I also hate it when taxi drivers hand me Square-equipped iPhones to sign for cab payments, which seems to be happening more and more often in Boston.)

Another reason is that businesses use them to wring larger tips out of you, or at least the Blue Bottle in New York did. After paying with a credit card, you see a number of tip options, presented in percentage form. I assume each business can set their own tip percentages, but this Blue Bottle started with 25 percent and increased in 10 percent intervals up to 45 percent. You can navigate through options to enter in your own tip amount, but that requires more slimy screen touching. So you’re much more likely to tap one of the preset options, or I am at least.

I purchased a couple of bags of rather expensive coffee beans along with my caffeine, and the total came to almost $40. I quickly tapped the lowest tip percentage, 25 percent, with a knuckle and a grimace and without considering the actual tip amount. Before I knew it, I’d given the barista, who’d just given me a dirty look, a $9 tip for pouring a coffee.

The whole experience left me feeling distrustful of the whole system–and in need of a sink and some disinfectant.

Technology is great when it simplifies processes and improves an experience for all involved parties. iPad-based payment terminals look futuristic and cool, but from the customer perspective, I’m not sure they’re an improvement over traditional cash registers. And they’re gross.