How far in the future is the cashless city? Well, if you look hard enough, you can already catch the odd glimpse of it.
The future does not arrive all at once, especially when technology is involved.
Instead, bits of it turn up in different places at different times, reaching some neighbourhoods much earlier than others.
If you’re not one of those on the edge, you have to take a day trip, which is exactly what I did. I had a day out – well, four hours – in the future.
The future in question is where we use our mobile phones instead of credit cards or cash to pay for anything we do.
This particular future has started to arrive in the West End of London where some restaurants, hotels and cinemas are starting to let people pay bills using a mobile payment system called Paybox.
The service started in Germany in May 2000 and now has 750,000 members worldwide. The UK service was launched in September 2001.
The afternoon in the future began with a journey to Soho in a taxi provided by cab firm Chauffeur Force.
Managing director Glen Coward said he signed up with Paybox in February because it would work well with the company’s customers.
The majority of the 12,000 journeys his taxis do every month are for account customers, all of whom are armed with mobile phones.
Paying for the cab with my mobile had a definite feel of the friction free future about it.
There was no frantic rummaging for cash in pockets or worries that the journey would cost more than I had in my wallet.
Instead, all I got was an automated phone call from Paybox asking me to confirm the payment to Chauffeur Force. Soon after, a text message arrived as a receipt.
“You can’t guarantee the delivery of an SMS so we don’t use it for the payment process,” said Barry Shrier, a spokesman for Paybox and a fellow traveller to the future.
The disadvantage of Paybox, and its rivals, is that you have to sign up before you can use it. Unlike cash, you can’t get it out of a hole in the wall and spend it.
Next stop was Soho’s chic Circus restaurant which was one of the first places in the UK to accept Paybox as a payment system.
Again, paying for a round of drinks was a breeze. All I did was write my mobile number on the bill and soon after got another call from Paybox asking me to confirm the payment.
“We do more transactions with Paybox than Diners Card,” said Angus Agnew, manager of Circus.
He said some people go to Circus simply because they can pay their bill with the phone and swank a little in front of the fiercely forward-looking Soho media crowd.
The fact that they have to answer a ringing phone to pay the bill does not bother him or any of the other diners.
“We live in a world where mobile telephones are everywhere,” he said. “Unless you are sitting in a snooty three-star Michelin restaurant people don’t care.”
After a few drinks, I moved on to the Prince Charles cinema in Leicester Square which lets people pay for tickets with Paybox.
Nicole Bailey, marketing manager for the cinema, said the service was popular with many students who take advantage of its low prices because, again, all of them are armed with mobiles.
The only disadvantage I could see of paying with a mobile for tickets is that it takes a little longer than cash. On a busy night for a popular film that delay might irritate others in the queue.
It’s not just in the real world that it is trying to gain a foothold. Some websites are using it to help them sidestep fraudsters using stolen credit cards.
Adam Freeman, chief executive of Phunky Phones, said in the early days of his site 20% of transactions were fraudulent.
“We were giving away more money than we were bringing in,” he said.
With systems like Paybox, fraud is eliminated because every transaction has to be authorised. Even access to a member’s account on the Paybox website has to be confirmed via the mobile.
Final stop was a hotel and bar called West Street which sits off Charing Cross Road. It too has a fiercely fashionable clientele who like the idea of paying with their mobile phone.
West Street manager Russell Norman said on a busy day they would have two or three people paying with Paybox.
Barry Shrier said Paybox was signing up a few restaurants and shops itself to demonstrate how the system worked, but had no plans to go door-to-door in towns and cities signing up merchants individually.
It would take an army of salesmen years to do that job, he said.
Instead, it wants to become like Visa and operate the processing service behind the scenes.
Now it is working to sign deals with companies and organisations that handle transactions for shops, hotels and restaurants. Once it signs up these organisations, huge numbers of businesses will be able to accept payment by Paybox almost overnight.
When it does, you’ll wake up and find that the future has finally arrived in your town.