Somewhat early in Amazon’s life (I don’t remember when I first saw this), I noticed that the Amazon shopping cart had an option which allowed you to place a credit card order without sending your card number over the Internet. When you checked out, you would indicate you didn’t want to enter your credit card number, and then you would get on the phone and read the card number to a person at Amazon. They made a special point of noting that you could not place a phone order — you had to check out with the online shopping cart first — but you could opt out of entering your card number in your web browser. When I first saw this, I thought, what a great way to get over people’s fears. Realistically, reading your card number to someone over the phone who then enters it into a database for you is probably no more secure, and possibly quite a bit less secure (since you introduce a human into the path between you and the database — that is, you ask for a “man in the middle“) than just entering the number yourself. That, though, wasn’t the point — the point was that Amazon customers could speak directly to a real person who would help them overcome their fears about Internet security. Brilliant.
Over the years, I noticed that this fallback feature worked its way down in prominence, and today I thought that it had disappeared entirely. Nope, it’s still there — it’s just so buried that anyone who would want to use it is pretty unlikely to find it. To use it today, enter the last five numbers of your credit card and the expiration date, then check out, and you’ll be given a special phone number to call and read a person the other 11 digits. (Splitting the number this way makes it a lot less likely that the person could make off with your card number — and maybe that’s the point?)
This made me wonder about the decay period of a fallback feature like this. Amazon has been around for a little more than a decade — is there a ten-year effective life for transitional web technologies? How many people used that feature when it launched, and how many people still use it today? If anyone knows the backstory on this, I’d love to hear it.