Who needs a wallet phone?

This looks to me like still-not-here technology aiming to eliminate a minor inconvenience that existing technology has already all but eliminated.

Yet I must be wrong because the cell phone makers and service providers and credit-card companies employ smart people who know their customers, do their market research and, generally speaking, make sound investments in advanced technology.

The conundrum is that it remains unimaginable to me that cell phone buyers will shell out extra money for and/or be more inclined to buy a particular mobile telephone or service because it will allow them to pay for stuff at checkout counters and vending machines by simply waving the device at a wireless reader (they may have to enter a PIN, too, which given the incremental benefits we’re talking about here is no trifling matter).

I bring this up now because MasterCard just announced a new service for banks that will supposedly make it easier for them to begin providing this technology to their customers. There was talk of this move possibly being a tipping point for wallet phone evolution, which until now has been as slow as, well, evolution.

I can wait. Recently on my drive home I stopped at a take-out restaurant and here’s how I paid for my family’s dinner: I handed the clerk my American Express, she swiped it through a card reader, and handed me a receipt. There was no PIN to enter and nothing to sign. Couldn’t have taken 15 seconds. Would waving my cell phone at a wireless reader have been easier? Not for me, because I don’t normally carry my cell phone. But, yes, I suppose those who do might have shaved a few seconds off that less-than-15-second transaction.

Vending machines, you say; all that fumbling for cash, which sometimes isn’t there when thirst beckons. Bah. Vending machine vexation was ranked number 1,273 on my list of concerns last time I checked. Gas stations? Paying at the pump — a genuine technological advance — has already drained 99 per cent of the pain out of settling up after filling up. I won’t even get one of those key-chain fobs in a chase for that remaining one per cent, so why would I want it from a cell phone?

They say wallet phones have been big overseas with users of public transit. I’m a suburbanite. As I heard it phrased recently, public transit goes from where I don’t live to where I don’t work. Think about the experience that early adopters of this technology are likely to endure: You’ve bought your wallet phone — paid a premium, no doubt — and now you’re looking to use the thing. Uh-oh, the convenience store you stop at all the time doesn’t have one of the readers and when you ask the manager about it he looks at you like you found a dead rat behind the Wonder Bread.

The downtown grocery and liquor stores in my town are so old they have hitching posts out front, so they won’t be catering to your gadget-freak need to shave seconds off of your shopping any time soon. Oh, sure, Starbucks and its ilk will fall into line. Still, all the big players — Nokia, Sony, Vodafone, Cingular, so on and so on — insist that wallet phones are going to be huge, so who am I to argue.

One last point, though, regarding when we’ll know for sure: I first saw this technology at Network World’s DEMO conference maybe five or six years ago (so long ago I couldn’t find a link). The guy from MasterCard told Reuters it’ll be at least 2010 before the phones are widely available. And, as for the point-of-purchase readers? Tack on another five or 10 before they reach critical mass.

I may be wrong, all right … Just don’t think about leaving your real wallet at home any time soon.

(Paul McNamara writes for Network World U.S.)

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