no more cash, please

Interesting opinion piece in Wired about the disadvantages of cash – as in dollar bills and coins – and the general (albeit slow) trend of economies to move towards electronic forms of payment. It certainly makes sense, I think. Not only is cash inconvenient, but, as the article points out, it’s costly and not particularly eco-friendly:

The cost to taxpayers [in the US] in 2008 alone was $848 million, more than two-thirds of which was spent minting coins that many people regard as a nuisance. (The process also used up more than 14,823 tons of zinc, 23,879 tons of copper, and 2,514 tons of nickel.)

It strikes me as odd that e-payment devices had not gained much traction in North America. More specifically, devices that can be used in place of cash, without the hassle of credit card signatures or entering PINs for debit cards. Elsewhere in the world such devices seem to have been taken up quite rapidly. For example, in Hong Kong, the Octopus card, a contactless, stored value card originally designed as a payment mechanism for the Hong Kong subway system, has been a roaring success. Use of such cards has now expanded to stores, restaurants – even parking meters and vending machines. Similarly, I remember seeing a Coke machine in Singapore where one could buy a brink by dialing a short number and thinking, how cool is that? FTA:

“The cell phone is the best point-of-sale terminal ever,” says Mark Pickens, a microfinance analyst with the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor. Mobile phone penetration is 50 percent worldwide, and mobile money programs already enable millions of people to receive money from or “flash” it to other people, banks, and merchants. An added convenience is that cell phones can easily calculate exchange rates among the myriad currencies at play in our world.

In contrast, cash replacement systems in North America don’t seem to be faring all too well. I remember a few years back when Dexit made its debut in Toronto. It was a stored value chip that you could carry on your keychain and swipe to make payments. You could reload it easily through a website. Fees were quite reasonable. And it seemed to work quite well. I was quite a fan. That is, until Dexit was restructured in 2006 and more or less all the terminals at stores disappeared.

One survey has found that there is some resistance from consumers to the idea of using mobile phones, due primarily to security and identity theft concerns. Certainly an issue, but one I would have thought would be no more risky than the use of credit cards, e-commerce sites or even venturing on-line with a PC. I know this is a bit of a simplistic comparison, and that there are significant complexities involved in electronic security, particularly when it involves money, but I would have thought that both the development of a secure platform as well as the ability to properly market such a platform to consumers would not be beyond the capabilities of companies who have, for example, developed highly secure mobile e-mail devices, or set up nationwide, sophisticated 3G cell networks, particularly given the potentially lucrative market for such a service which as yet seems to be relatively free from much in the way of serious competition – at least here in North America.

In the meantime, I guess it’s off to the ATM again.