starbucks.pngThis week Starbucks started accepting payments by cell phone. While this may not seem like a ground-breaking announcement, it may well portend the wave of the future for Americans.

In Japan, payment by cell phone has already become so popular that cell phones are referred to as mobile wallets. A Japanese citizen's cell phone can contain identification, a boarding pass, or other documents. It can be used to unlock the front door of their home, to pay for a taxi, to get a soda out of a vending machine, and at times to make a purchase in a store.

While mobile payments have been slow to take off in Europe and North America, they are popular in some Asian countries as well as in India and Africa. Mobile payments are boon to people who use cash more than checks or credit cards, especially those who do not have easy access to banks. The world-wide numbers say it all. There are 4 billion cell phones in use in the world, but only 1 billion bank accounts.  So paying with a mobile phone is a good alternative to those who pay for purchases with cash.

They can, however, also be a convenience for Americans. That's what Starbucks hopes to teach us. The company launched a trial mobile payment plan in 2009. It was quite successful, so now they are ready to take it live across the United States. The payment will be accomplished by downloading a smartphone App, which is currently available for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and select BlackBerry devices. You can reload your Starbucks mobile App by using a credit card or PayPal.  You can check your Starbuck's balance right in your phone and of course, you can accumulate reward points. To buy a Mocha Latte Grande or your favorite drink or Starbuck's sweet, you simply hold your cell phone up to the scanner at the Starbucks register which reads the bar code displayed on your screen and debits your Starbuck's account automatically.

There is a lot of money and power behind the move to mobile payments. Nokia just invested $35 million in a mobile payment service called Obopay.   This is a company that is already doing mobile payments, many in conjunction with banks like Citigoup. Several other startups have also raised millions of dollars with projects to make mobile payments a part of our everyday lives.

eBay's Pay Pal service already has a mobile payment service that also works by an App that is available for iPhone, Android or BlackBerry. The Pay Pal App is nicknamed "Bump" because you can "Bump" two cell phones together to transfer money wirelessly. But you don't have to be nearby to transfer money. You can use your cell phone to send money as gifts, collect money from others, or repay money to far away friends and acquaintances, as well. No banks to visit. No checks to write. No credit cards to deal with.

Some phones are starting to be equipped with chips that allow two-way wireless communications between the phone and a receiving terminal in a store, kiosk, or vending machine. These chips support a technology called Near Field Communication (NFC). An NFC enabled phone will allow an even easier way to pay for purchases. You will simply wave your phone at the terminal and the purchase will be made. Because two-way communications will be enabled, you will also be able to get instant coupons, loyalty points, and/or other perks.

There is no doubt that e-commerce and mobile payment are going to make a stab at changing the way we view and use money, banks, and credit cards. The question is, "Are Americans willing to ditch cash and credit cards and pay for our purchases with a cell phone?"

I'm not sure that we are all ready for that, however, I know quite a few twenty-somethings who have never written a check. They don't need the comfort of a piece of paper, whether a dollar bill or a check. I think they are ready for mobile payments. I believe that it will slowly happen for all of us.