A few months ago, I caught an early morning flight to Mumbai. On reaching the destination I realized I had absolutely no money on me. Of course, with a wallet full of debit and credit cards I was not worried. A local bank had its ATM just outside the arrival hall. I had no relationship with that bank but I didn’t let that bother me. I was just looking for the familiar two circle logo or the white dove. I easily withdrew the amount I needed. A piece of plastic had a branch in the place where I was going as long as a Master-Card or a Visa ATM existed.
So what was the magic that enable a bank which did not know me from Adam to allow me to withdraw cash from its ATM?
The concept is pretty simple. A worldwide network that allowed the ATM to talk to the international network in split seconds, which in turn spoke to my bank network that approved/rejected most requests in split seconds. As a consumer I did not even realize that the data embedded in my simple request to withdraw cash went all the way across the oceans and came back. I just withdrew my cash and went about my work. In fact, with the advent of smart cards, technology is going a step further. In a pilot experiment carried out at two university campuses in the country a smart card-based payment system was used to pay for everything from soaps to cigarettes to books to tuition fees as well as to record attendance, regulate entry in restricted areas, etc., marking quite a few concepts such as currency and access cards redundant.
The beauty of the second wave of card technology is that the complex technology in the back-end does not impose any knowledge requirement on the user who can be technology illiterate. This is what makes it particularly suitable to a country like India which has a large illiterate or semi-illiterate population and a lack of a common language across the country.
Banks are beginning to interact to make life simpler for you(and of course to make monies for themselves). The ATM is used not just for withdrawing or depositing cash but also for refilling your prepaid mobile connection or to transact on your mutual fund/investment accounts or to login your request for other bank offerings such as loans, bonds, etc. Other offerings like stock prices cricket score, locally relevant offers such as discounts on local shopping or eating joints, cinema tickets, etc. which are currently a novelty, are likely to become the norm in the vouchers, rail and air tickets, etc. being actually dispensed by the ATM instead of only cash.
There is already talk of a sears citi card login which will act as a citizen recognition card cum voter ID cum ration card cum driving license cum electronic wallet cum a personal/medical data and transaction bank that can be universally used to meet a whole range of personal requirements. You need to fill in an application form? Flash your card and the form can be submitted on line. You met with an accident and need help? Your smart card can save your life by telling people who you are, your medical history and possible by paying for your bill completely electronically.