December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

To buy now, press pound

With Web-enabled cell phones expected to eclipse numbers of Internet-linked PCs in the next five years, virtual merchants and wireless carriers are scrambling to dial for dollars.

Amazon.com recently introduced a URL for cell phones. Residing as a bookmark on the phone’s main menu, it connects callers to Amazon sans Web portal. The e-retailer has struck deals for the technology with Sprint PCS, Bell Atlantic and Nextel.

Amazon began piloting the URL last December with Sprint PCS and has marketing pacts with cellular carriers Nokia and Motorola for Web portals. “Our customers are mobile, and they like to shop online,” says Chuck Napier, product manager for Amazon.com’s new Anywhere division. “It is an advantage to us and a convenience to our customers to provide a choice of devices and carriers.”

Motorola also broke into mobile commerce with plans for a virtual credit card for its phones. The card, from the Trintech Group, San Mateo, Calif., can be activated by keypad or voice. Several banks already issue virtual credit cards for PCs, but observers expect Motorola’s to heighten both interest and trust in using wireless devices to shop. “Making a purchase by saying ‘Buy’ or ‘Pay’ into a cell phone-knowing that all the data is securely stored and accessed on a server elsewhere-is a huge benefit to consumers and a huge opportunity for merchants,” says a Trintech spokesperson.

Today, purchases made via cell phone or personal digital assistant tend be for books, CDs and plane tickets-items consumers don’t necessarily need to see before buying. But the next generation of wireless devices could change that. One expected enhancement is a buying agent, software within a wireless device that scans sites for the best deals. “The next generation of devices will be so much more information driven,” says Chris Jarman, vice president of Electronic and Emerging Technology for MasterCard International, which is testing a buying agent.

Observers also expect the next generation of wireless devices to proliferate faster than PCs. “E-commerce capable wireless devices will get up and running faster than Internet-based PCs because that hurdle has been cleared,” says Jarman. “The potential volume for merchants is huge.”

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