"Most people think of eBay as an online auction house, the world’s biggest garage sale, which it has been for most of its life. But since Donahoe took over in 2008, he has slowly moved the company beyond auctions, developing technology partnerships with big retailers like Home Depot, Macy’s, Toys ‘‘R’’ Us and Target and expanding eBay’s online marketplace to include reliable, returnable goods at fixed prices. (Auctions currently represent just 30 percent of the purchases made at eBay.com; the site sells 13,000 cars a week through its mobile app alone, many at fixed prices.)
Under Donahoe, eBay has made 34 acquisitions over the last five years, most of them to provide the company and its retail partners with enhanced technology. EBay can help with the back end of websites, create interactive storefronts in real-world locations, streamline the electronic-payment process or help monitor inventory in real time. (Outsourcing some of the digital strategy and technological operations to eBay frees up companies to focus on what they presumably do best: Make and market their own products.) In select cities, eBay has also recently introduced eBay Now, an app that allows you to order goods from participating local vendors and have them delivered to your door in about an hour for a $5 fee. The company is betting its future on the idea that its interactive technology can turn shopping into a kind of entertainment, or at least make commerce something more than simply working through price-plus-shipping calculations. If eBay can get enough people into Dick’s Sporting Goods to try out a new set of golf clubs and then get them to buy those clubs in the store, instead of from Amazon, there’s a business model there.
A key element of eBay’s vision of the future is the digital wallet. On a basic level, having a ‘‘digital wallet’’ means paying with your phone, but it’s about a lot more than that; it’s as much a concept as a product. EBay bought PayPal in 2002, after PayPal established itself as a safe way to transfer money between people who didn’t know each other (thus facilitating eBay purchases). For the last several years, eBay has regarded digital payments through mobile devices as having the potential to change everything — to become, as David Marcus, PayPal’s president, puts it, ‘‘Money 3.0.’’'
"The best current example of the digital wallet’s promise, according to many in Silicon Valley, is Uber, a digital platform that connects riders and drivers. You enter your credit-card information into the Uber app once, and then every time you want to use it, the app knows where you are and shows you how many cars are nearby and how soon one can be available. You order with one touch on a mobile screen, and a text lets you know a driver is on the way and then another tells you when he’s near. He greets you by name, you tell him where you want to go and then, when you are dropped off, there is no further exchange — no tip, no receipt, no signing anything. The app takes care of all that for you. Uber didn’t change anything about the nature of cars or how they are driven. It just figured out how to use data and technology to make what was out there work much more efficiently. (EBay, through its acquisition of the company Shutl, has begun to exploit a similar inefficiency in the spare capacity of courier companies.)
"‘‘It’s not about payment,’’ Jack Dorsey, a founder of Square, a PayPal competitor, says. ‘‘It’s about identity. And it’s about the experience that a merchant can create, which is what actually builds loyalty. We believe that it’s important that the technology, the mechanics of payments, actually fade away to the background. They disappear completely.’’ After helping found Twitter in 2006, Dorsey became chief executive of Square in 2009. Its initial innovation was the Square Reader, a small device that plugs into the headphone jack of a smartphone or tablet and enables anyone, anywhere, to process a credit-card payment. (PayPal now has a similar reader.) In 2011, Square introduced what would become known as the Square Wallet, an app that links to a credit card (as Uber does) and allows consumers to pay either by holding their phones up to a scanner or, in some cases, simply by having the phones on in their pockets. Dorsey talks about how cool it is to get your coffee without having to do anything, but he also emphasizes what it means for the merchants. ‘‘The seller gets this very interesting tool,’’ he says. ‘‘They can recognize me when I walk in.’’