This week, there has been a lot of buzz
in the media about Japanese cellphone makers wanting to bring their "wallet phone" (osaifu keitai
) technology to the West. Generally speaking, Japanese cellphones are more advanced (and stylish) than their Western counterparts and include features such as the electronic wallet, which allows its owner to pay for things just by swiping the cellphone over a specially designed reader.
When I first moved to Japan, I thought this was incredibly cool. Why would I want to mess with paper subway tickets when I can just swipe my cellphone and forget it? How cool would it be to be able to buy stuff from vending machines with just a magic wave of my phone? However, after shopping around for my first phone, I learned that the selection of available phones with this technology was fairly limited. I then realized that choosing a phone primarily because of this feature could be a mistake, and that turned out to be an wise move.
Japanese companies have developed several alternative ways to pay for items electronically, and they work basically the same as the "wallet phone". They even offer some advantages. Suica
are probably the biggest players in the Tokyo market and are actual cards that live inside your real wallet. You can use these cards to pay for train and bus tickets, drinks at certain vending machines (usually at train stations), and your tab at some convenience stores like Family Mart
. I carry a Pasmo card myself, but I do like the Suica design more.
My Pasmo card - That's my name in Katakana
I have two of these, but I don't carry them with me. I save them for visitors.
The nice thing about these cards is that they can stay in your wallet except when you need to recharge them. The signal is strong enough that you can swipe your wallet (or at least my wallet) over the reader without removing the card. Unlike the cellphone wallet, you can charge up these cards with cash at the train ticket machines (or on the bus). The cellphone wallet is hooked into your credit card, so it's one more potential thing to run up your debt.
Most people probably don't leave their homes without their wallets AND cellphones. This is why I can't understand why someone would limit their available cellphone options when they can just put another card in their wallet. Most importantly, all this technology is only as useful if a great number of vendors support it. One of the main obsticles to overcome in Japan, and I'd bet history will repeat itself in the USA, was that several companies wanted to launch their own versions of these electronic payment systems, many with their own dedicated reader. You can see how this can not only get very complicated for both the vendors and the customers, but also hamper widespread implementation. I guess time will tell if these "wallet phones" catch on in the States, but personally, I'd just wait to see which (if any) company comes out on top, and go with the slightly less sexy card version that won't impact your cellphone options.