As much as payment companies love to talk about opening up their platforms, there's definite room for improvement.

Typically the focus has been on startups and independent developers to build on a bigger company's network, such as through the hackathons hosted by the largest banks and card brands. As it turns out, big companies also want to play in these sandboxes.

CardFree, which supports merchant mobile wallets, has extended its application programming interface to manage enterprise-level deployments. In just a couple of weeks, the extension has garnered adoption from all of CardFree's partners, including Dunkin' Donuts, Taco Bell, Sonic and Reb Lobster, with the fee depending on how the client uses the API.

Dunkin Donutes and mobile phone
Dunkin Donuts, a longtime customer of CardFree, is among the first to use the mobile wallet developer's expanded API. Bloomberg News

"The payments space is so fluid," said Jon Squire, the CEO of CardFree. "Every six months there's a new device to interact with. You want to be able to do something that's not just mobile."

While APIs are often used to allow merchants to launch an interface for e-commerce or mobile payments, CardFree, which has offices in San Francisco and the Denver area, is extending the concept to a broader range of services and devices in the hope of combining several shopping and payment tasks in the same experience.

The universal API supports multiple digital and physical retail channels. It also embeds more general digital commerce such as order ahead, loyalty marketing and CRM. CardFree's API extension is meant to address the range of device options and digital features that large chains are pressured to accept, often driven by consumer adoption of new devices.

Consumers may wish to use a new type of phone or authentication at a quick-serve restaurant that may not have that capability yet. The universal API can enable a fast response, Squire said.

The universal API has been available for only about a month, and already Dunkin' Donuts has used it to upgrade the order-ahead function in its mobile app, along with technology that searches for the nearest location from within the same user experience. Taco Bell will roll out kiosk enhancements over the next few months, and GM has added more payments and retail functions to its in-dash service.

"Our work on this started in earnest about a year and a half ago as bots became significant," Squire said, adding CardFree has adopted the same flexibility in its own development as the company seeks more partners and clients outside of the quick-service industry. "So getting order-ahead into cars makes sense."

Retailers are trying to catch up with their customers with unified commerce becoming an urgent necessity to accommodate changing customer behaviors, said Thad Peterson, a senior analyst at Aite Group.

"Integration of mobile into the equation is critical since the smartphone is becoming the customer’s primary access device to both the physical and virtual worlds," Peterson said. "Every retailer needs to be thinking of ways to meet their customer’s needs wherever and whenever they enter their customer journey."

CardFree has spent years developing technology to move quick-service chains and other restaurants away from cards to mobile payments and marketing. Many members of its leadership team worked on early versions of the Starbucks app — and many of CardFree's clients, such as Dunkin' Donuts, have been on board for a while.

"Each merchant niche has a unique customer base. There will be people that don't care to interact with a mobile device," Squire said. "Some of the folks that aren't using a smartphone may find Alexa easier to order from, for example, so you have to be ready to address that. Nobody knows what is going to win the day."

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