Japan wants to sell you a wallet phone

SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. -- Japan, Inc. (a government-led group of Japanese wireless carriers and handset makers) announced plans to hawk its "wallet phone" technology worldwide. The guts of this technology is the FeliCa chip, which enables contactless payment. I'm for it, but I'd rather not have to buy a Japanese phone.

I love the idea of a "wallet phone." In an age of cell phones, where everyone is walking around with a battery-operated, wirelessly connected computer, why are we still carrying around these lame slices of plastic whose sole function is to hold a thin magnetic strip full of data?

I've written about, and advocated, the wallet-phone concept before. But Japan's initiative is all about giving everyone a reason to buy cell phones made by Japanese companies. Most of us, however, would rather use phones from companies based in Canada, Cupertino, Korea, the U.S. or Finland.

But Japan's push reminds me that in the United States, companies are (as always) way behind the rest of the world in various things you can do with a cell phone.

I wrote about wallet phones back in April of 2007, and back then I reported that Citigroup, Obopay, PayPal, VeriSign, Cellular South, Kyocera, Discover, Ecrio, Nokia, MasterCard, Motorola, CellTrust, Vivotech and others were testing, and poised to unveil game-changing products and services that would enable us all to ditch our credit cards and simply wave our cell phones over readers to pay for things.

Where did all those initiatives go? Where's my cell phone wallet?

Japan has been very successful at cell phone payments, and they serve as a great model for how to accomplish it. But as a consumer, I'd hate to be faced with the choice between buying the phone of my choice on the one hand, and a Japanese phone that does contactless payments on the other. Why can't U.S. carriers and financial institutions get their acts together and make cell phone wallets a reality?

The biggest problem, as always, is multiple competing standards and an industry that is more interested in carving out their own proprietary solutions than working together to realize a new technology that will -- if done right -- benefit everybody.

Japan wants to sell you a wallet phone. That means yet another incompatible set of standards and technologies are going to be tossed into the mix.

Hopefully Japan's initiative will focus minds on the need for making long-overdue wallet phones a reality at last.


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon