RE/CODE: Google’s mission to organize the world’s information is now targeting your physical mailbox. The company is currently working on a project that will allow Gmail users to more easily receive bills in their email inbox instead of their mailbox. Called Pony Express, the service also is designed to let people pay their bills within Gmail, rather than having to go to a telecom or utility company’s website to complete a payment.
Those details are outlined in a lengthy document viewed by Re/code. The new service is scheduled to start in the fourth quarter, according to the document. It’s not clear whether Pony Express is a code name or one that’ll be used if it comes to market. A Google spokeswoman declined to comment.
Such a service fits Google’s ongoing desire to bring all of the world’s information online, most notably its Google Books project, which has so far digitized well over 30 million volumes.
With Pony Express, Google could suck in the type of financial data that would allow it to expand into new businesses. Credit card bills and payment history would be a gateway into industries such as personal finance or lending. And the data could be used to refine how advertisements are targeted to individuals on Google, YouTube and partnering sites, though such a move would likely stoke privacy concerns. It’s not clear whether Google would generate any revenue directly from the Pony Express service.
The document features a step-by-step walk-through of how people can sign up. A Gmail user provides personal information such as their name, address and partial and full Social Security number to a third-party company that vets their identity. Users might also have to provide information such as a full credit card number or telephone service account number to get started, too.
According to the documents, it appears Google is partnering with third-party vendors that print and mail out bills on behalf of service providers such as insurance companies, telecom companies and utilities. It’s not clear whether Google is also working directly with the service providers, too.
Once a user is authenticated, he or she can start receiving bills or other mail in Gmail or the Inbox app (Google’s new email app). E-billing is not a new thing as pretty much all major financial, telecom and utility companies allow for paperless billing. But Google could play up the fact it can organize a Gmail user’s bills automatically in a special Pony Express folder. Here’s a screenshot from the document, which appears to show such a folder.
The most useful part of the service could be the payments feature. As you can see below, the service appears to let people choose to pay a bill right from within Pony Express, using a link with a bank account or a debit card. The image below shows the payment feature in the Inbox app.
Pony Express also allows users to share a bill with another Gmail user, with the added option of automating the process, a feature that appears to be catered to roommates who typically split utilities. Another feature pulls up customer service contact information for a given service provider. Then there’s one that appears to show the capability to take a photo of a piece of mail to have it archived in digital form in Pony Express.
Google would not be the first company to attempt to help people organize and pay bills from a centralized location. A startup called Manilla, backed by Hearst, offered a service like this for several years before shutting down last year. An app called Check also allows people to view and pay for their bills through the app. Intuit bought Check last year for $360 million. Google’s potential advantage? The millions of people who already use its email services.