Montpellier: the cashless society

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The ancient city of Montpellier in the south of France is about to offer a glimpse of a near future in which we will carry our entire lives in small objects in our pockets.

From today, the people of Montpellier will be able to pay for public transport journeys by waving a memory stick as they enter a bus or tram. The special USB sticks, on sale in the city for €5, can be topped up on line from any computer.

The project – the first of its kind in Europe – will be followed shortly by similar schemes in Grenoble and the suburbs of Paris. The French state railway, SNCF, is even developing a programme to allow commuters to download and pay for virtual tickets on their mobile telephones – something that already happens in Japan.

The French government believes that the memory stick will soon become an electronic identity card. It launched a programme early this month called IDéNUM, which will let people transfer their multiple user-names and passwords to one memory stick or smart card or mobile phone. The intention is to simplify electronic banking and shopping and to make government welfare payments more easily accessible on line.

The USB stick, which slips easily into a port on most computers, has already transcended its original function as a portable memory store. In future, it is predicted, it could take over – or be combined with – the functions of the credit card, mobile phone and identity card or passport.

The cities of Bordeaux and Toulon have started an experiment in which shoppers can pay through memory sticks for small purchases such as bread, newspapers or cigarettes. The city of Montpellier is considering whether the "bus-pass memory stick" might not even be used to lighten the heavy loads carried by French schoolchildren.

"We could easily download on to the stick, say, all the books that students have to read in college [the middle school for 11- to 14-year-olds in the French system]," said Frederic Linossier, who developed the scheme.

Over 11 million memory sticks were sold in France last year and more than 1 billion around the world. Their capacity is increasing exponentially. Kingston, an American electronics company, has developed a stick with 256 gigabytes of memory – equivalent to 365 CDs.