Bank transactions come to U.K. cell phones

The cash machine is coming to the mobile phone in the U.K. with a service that will let subscribers check a bank account balance and buy mobile phone minutes anywhere their phones work.

Britain's LINK cash machine network is set to introduce some cash-machine functions on mobile phones through an application that will be available for download. The service, called MobileATM (automated teller machine), initially will provide account balances and soon after will let users add time to a prepaid phone account, according to a statement by Sun Microsystems Inc., a technology partner in the project. It should work on any mobile network that allows subscribers to download third-party applications, according to Sun.

At the 3GSM Worldwide Congress in Cannes on Monday, Sun will tout its participation in the MobileATM project, the latest service that uses Java software and SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards in mobile phones to certify that users are who they say they are. Sun, the creator of Java, is promoting that combination as a new identification system for secure transactions.

"Identity is a valuable asset that the carriers have that they are underutilizing," said Eric Chu, director of Sun's J2ME (Java 2 Mobile Edition) platform, in an interview last week.

The SIM card that comes in every GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phone has nearly unbreakable security, and combining that with Java software can form a trusted platform for customers to authenticate their identities before carrying out tasks such as cash-machine transactions, said David Rivas, chief technology officer for Sun's client systems group. The applications can run on a Java virtual machine on the phone, which is secured via a "sandbox" that keeps viruses and other problems out of the software, he said.

The technology offers a number of possibilities, Rivas said. For example, subscribers could start up their phones with a password and then use it, via RFID (radio frequency identification) or another technology, to pay subway fares wirelessly, Rivas said. Even more significant, for larger purchases the phone could act like a credit card, with a Java application popping up a screen for the subscriber to enter a password on the spot, and the phone communicating the authorization to a cash register, Rivas said.

The service was scheduled for a U.K. launch in mid-January and a global introduction later in the year. Sun was unable to confirm that the service was launched on schedule, but more information can be found at MobileATM's Web site. (http://www.mobileatm.co.uk)

Mobile operators including SK Telecom Co. Ltd. of South Korea, NTT DoCoMo Inc. of Japan and Globe Telecom Inc. of the Philippines already are using Java in personal financial and payment applications for subscribers, according to Sun.

Businesses and consumers may well embrace phones as payment devices, said The Yankee Group analyst John Jackson.

"Given the proliferation of cell phones and their computing capabilities, it's a logical extension of what you do today with your debit card," Jackson said.

Java and SIM cards are logical components of such a system because both are so widely used in mobile phones, though they are not used by CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) subscribers, who make up about half of cell phone users in the U.S., Jackson pointed out. There are more than 600 million Java-enabled handsets in the world, according to Sun.

Two challenges Sun faces in making its vision a reality are achieving consistency across the Java platforms on different phones and establishing a standards-based back-end infrastructure such as the Sun-backed Liberty Alliance, Jackson said.

Also at 3GSM, Sun is set to showcase its Java System Content Delivery Server, a platform for managing, delivering and billing for mobile content such as games, ringtones and screen wallpaper.

At its booth, the company will demonstrate Project Lemonpeel, a prototype of a system for delivering a content lineup tailored to an individual user's preferences, Rivas said. In addition, mobile infrastructure vendor Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson will introduce a new managed content delivery service for mobile operators that is based on the Java System Content Delivery Server, according to Sun.

(Peter Sayer in Paris contributed to this report.)

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