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Mobile wallets cut back on key taps

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Industry Standard

(IDG) -- Say you're away from your home or office computer and you want to use your wireless Web phone to order flowers for your mother. You'd have to locate a vendor, select mom's favorite type of roses and then go through the agonizing step of keying in your 16-digit credit card number to pay for them. The process is so complicated, you're more likely to simply dial up 1-800-FLOWERS and give your order to a customer service rep.

Several mobile services companies believe that consumers will buy things over their wireless Web phones if they don't have to key in too much information, and they're banking on mobile wallets to make wireless Web shopping easier. A mobile wallet is similar to a physical wallet but with a centralized back-end. Not only does it hold a user's credit card information, it contains personal information, shipping preferences and everything else needed to make a purchase over a mobile phone, all held in a database managed by the cellular carrier or by a third party.

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Mobile wallets are already available in parts of Europe, and they may start showing up within a few months on major U.S. wireless carriers. The idea is relatively simple: Users enter their credit card and shipping information through a browser on a Web site (probably the site of their cell phone carrier), then make purchases with the phone by entering a password or other personal identification number.

One wireless services company pushing the mobile wallet concept is New York City-based Snaz Commerce Solutions. Vikram Chachra, the company's co-founder and chief strategy officer, compares the mobile-wallet service to Amazon's one-click service that lets users save their credit card and shipping information into a database and then buy products very quickly, anytime. The mobile wallet, Chachra says, is really just the user-data part of a larger mobile commerce solution that includes aggregating vendors onto a single platform, bringing that platform to the wireless carrier and managing the transactions. "It gives you single sign-on access to every vendor on the platform," Chachra says. Making deals with vendors is one of Snaz's key strategies: It currently has partnerships with Barnes & Noble, Gap, 1800Flowers.com and others.

Still, there's no guarantee that users will be comfortable with the idea of buying complex or expensive items this way. Vendors that are interested in offering their goods or services through the wireless channel must come to terms with a year of poor reviews for Web and m-commerce services through mobile phones. Some analysts have predicted that the only m-commerce solutions that stand a chance are so-called "trigger" services like stock trades, in which the user's information is already on hand with the vendor.

But supporters say that mobile wallets can make the purchase of just about any item a trigger purchase. "It makes the whole thing a lot easier," says Tony Mulqueen, a product manager with wireless services middleware developer Network365 in Ireland. "It's a way of storing preferences and an online identity." Network365's mobile commerce system, called mZone, includes a mobile wallet that supports credit card transactions as well as micropayment transactions that may draw against a prepaid account - which has been a more popular way to buy time on mobile phones in Europe than it has been in North America.

All this begs the question, are consumers using mobile wallets yet? Mulqueen says that Network365 deployed its first mobile e-commerce server (including mobile wallets) in February 2000 for wireless application protocol customers on Digiphone, Ireland's second-largest mobile carrier. And Chachra of Snaz says his company is about to announce deals with one of the top five European mobile carriers and with a U.S. carrier that has more than 10 million users.

Their hope is that once users get more comfortable with buying through their phones, mobiles will become much more like real wallets, and people will use them to pay for incidental expenses like parking and sodas from machines, as they already do in Finland. As Mulqueen says, "We haven't quite progressed too far beyond the traditional wine, CD and flowers WAP shopping here in Ireland, but the possibilities are there."



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