Money Ain’t Worth the Trouble

Canadian Five Dollar Bill

Money is yucky. It’s dirty and smells funny. It rips (in the hands of children). As you move from country to country, you’re required to trade it in. And no matter where you are, a lot of it’s fake.

Consider the last time I was in Vancouver and stopped to buy a slice of pizza in some little hole-in-the-wall. It was one of those rare times I had cash in my pocket. As I handed the guy a fiver he gave me a dirty look. He held the bill daintily between his thumb and forefinger like it was toxic waste and tossed it under a special UV light to verify it was real money.

My change was a handful of coins sticky with the sweaty palms of a thousand people. The moment after he closed the till the clerk thoroughly washed his hands with hot water and soap. I suddenly regretted buying a handheld snack.

Last week at the world’s largest annual mobile technology conference, 3GSM, Motorola introduced a comprehensive digital wallet solution called M-Wallet. It is my sincere hope that this spells the end of cash money.

Any piece of technology, from a cell phone to a PC, can use M-Wallet to wirelessly access bank accounts and credit cards to handle financial transactions in real time.

It would work like Esso’s SpeedPass or Mastercard’s PayPass, using the same local transaction system, called “Near Field Communication”, or NFC.

Last December Nokia, Sony and Philips began a large field test of their implementation of NFC with Chase Bank at the Philips Arena in Atlanta. Thrashers season ticket holders can buy concession goods and souvenirs using special Nokia phones.

What makes Motorola’s entry into the market different is that, well, it’s actually entered the market. It’s real. It’s here. M-Wallet is available for implementation by developers and merchants now.

So a cashless society is at last within reach.

Needless to say, the current Canadian cash-based economy, flooded with counterfeit bills, is primed and ready for it.

Fully half of Canadians have cell phones today and the annual growth rate of ownership is a stunning 12%. Compare that to an annual 2% rate of decline for traditional home and business telephones. It will only be a few years until most of us cart around one of those annoying little devices, having replaced our landlines.

Which means a majority of Canadians will have in their pockets the technology needed for shopping a la cell phone. Considering we were a world leader in the adoption of alternative payment services like Interac and the internet, it’s likely the digital wallet revolution could start in our country soon.

But M-Wallet’s capabilities go beyond financial transactions. It can be used for tickets, coupons, door locks and identity information. Basically, with M-Wallet, your cell phone could replace not only your cash and credit cards, but your keys, identity documents, and travel documents as well.

With all that personal information sitting on a single device that’s easy to lose, security had better be tight. And that’s probably the one area of cell phone technology that’s lagging. A four-letter password won’t cut it for M-Wallet.

Last week Bill Gates declared the password dead as a form of user authentication. I have to agree with him. The only thing less secure than a password-protected security system is an open door.

Any M-Wallet-enabled cell phone must be capable of clearly identifying its user as a distinct entity, without reliance on any abstract input, such as a password or a PIN number. I’d wager that biometrics would best fit the bill. Biometrics uses a unique physical attribute, such as a thumbprint or corneal scan, as its identity mechanism.

This isn’t as science fiction as it might sound. You can buy biometric security systems for your PC at Staples.

An ideal solution for protecting an M-Wallet enabled phone would be a small thumbprint scanner that’s built into the device. Before any service would initiate, the owner must place his or her thumb on the scanner. If the cell phone were lost or stolen, it would be useless.

One of the first payment systems to adopt M-Wallet should be the home delivery of newspapers. I’m sure the kid who brings the paper to my house is sick of waiting at my door while I dig around under the couch for the paltry subscription fee. If he carried an M-Wallet device that I could just swipe my cell phone past, life would be easier for us both.

Plus he wouldn’t have to get so grossed out as he watches me pick my two-year old’s boogers off the linty quarters before I hand them over.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, February 17, 2006.

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