You walk into an electronics shop, eager to buy the new DVD of that movie you saw in the cinemas not long ago. You pick it up and head for the sales attendant, and prepare to get your wallet out, only to find you forgot it at home! However, all is not lost. You whip out your mobile phone and give it to the sales attendant, who passes it over a scanner. A couple of beeps later and the transaction is complete, the cost of the DVD deducted from your bank account.
You might think this is a scene from a science-fiction movie set years into the future, but this could quite easily be a scene played out in Japan at the moment. M-commerce, or “mobile-commerce”, the mobile phone version of e-commerce, has advanced to the point where buying a DVD with your mobile phone has become a reality. NTT DoCoMo, the number one mobile phone carrier in Japan, began this revolution little more than a month ago with the announcement of four new phones containing Sony’s FeliCa non-contact smartcard, capable of storing many kinds of information. It’s main use will be in M-commerce, although in future FeliCa phones may be upgraded to support other schemes such as frequent flyer points for airlines.
First you need to add money to your handset, using a machine resembling an ATM. You insert money into the machine to increase your phone’s account balance. Once you’ve done that, you can use it to buy goods and services. All that’s required to pay by mobile phone is merely to wave your handset in front of the scanner. You don’t need to open your phone (in the case of a clamshell) or press any buttons. Just wave the phone and the scanner will beep, completing the transaction and displaying your remaining balance. It’s that simple. The service is already available in many department stores in Japan through the Edy payment service, and the phones can even be used to buy drinks from a vending machine.
The mobile phones that contain FeliCa smart cards are themselves rather advanced devices. They all have 1.3 megapixel - or better - digital cameras, QVGA colour screens, memory card slots, 40 - 64 tone polyphonic sound chips and full internet access. One of the four phones is also a W-CDMA device capable of downloading at 384kbps. It also has a fingerprint scanner for security.
While this kind of technology isn’t likely to filter down into Australia in a hurry, M-commerce activity is slowly growing. The popular medium of choice for M-commerce in Australia at the moment is through SMS, with firms such as Telstra and Qantas trialling ticketing systems involving the use of a graphic barcode sent through SMS to a customer upon payment for a service, with the barcode to be scanned when it is required. In Qantas’s case, the trial is of a mobile airline check-in system, with the barcode SMS being proof of purchase of an airline ticket. This barcode is then scanned upon boarding. The SMS also contains other useful information such as your seat number on the aircraft.
Another idea that has popped up is that of auction bidding via your mobile, something that Legion Interactive, the company that manages phone hotline numbers and SMS based competitions, has teamed up with IMG eCommerce to realise. IMG eCommerce already run many high profile auctions on the internet, and people bid in these auctions through computers connected to the internet. With mobile bidding, bidders can bypass using the computer at all just by sending an SMS to the mobile bidding number to indicate that they want to bid a certain amount on a certain item.
Hopefully we will see useful M-commerce applications grow in Australia. While I’m not in any particular hurry to have my credit card linked to my mobile phone, just having a small account to pay for small things such as a snack from a convenience store is a very novel idea and will probably prove quite convenient in practice.