Nearly two decades ago at a seminar in Delhi, a top telecom official made a remark that left many in the audience puzzled. Giving an example of how digital technology could change the lives of people in the future, he said "one day you will be able to store family photo albums in a public computer and see them whenever you like, because albums today are too unwieldy to handle".
This was the time when the internet was far from being a household name, digital photography did not exist and photo management software like Picasa and Flickr had not even been imagined.
The official was Dr Satyen Gangaram (Sam) Pitroda and every word of what he foresaw has come true. The only family photo albums we know of today reside not in our homes but on some distant servers across the seas. In 2010, Sam is predicting something very outlandish - the end of the money in the form of currency notes and coins and the emergence of what he calls ' mobile money'. Just like the photo albums that had become too unwieldy, our leather wallet has also become too bulgy. Besides Rupee notes and coins, it contains a bunch of credit and debit cards, discount cards from superstores, loyalty coupons, metro card, toll payment card, driving license, club membership card, receipts of purchases and of course, photographs of spouse and kids.
Sam wants to replace your leather wallet with a digital or mobile wallet - just as he replaced the paper phone book with an electronic diary that he invented in 1975.
In its most simple form, a digital wallet will digitise all key components of a leather wallet: an empty jacket, a plethora of plastic and paper cards, coupons, bills, receipts, cash etc.
The idea is to let you use it the same way as you use your leather wallet.
The only difference will be that instead of handing over a piece of plastic at a retail outlet, you will be just waving your digital wallet to make a payment and a receipt will be beamed back so that you could store it in the wallet.
What Sam has built is a platform on which a variety of transactions can be made with ease and with full security. Some transactions will take place over- the- air ( the internet) while many others will use NFC or near field communication.
This goes much beyond mobile banking and micro- payments over cell phones that we see today.
Yet the digital wallet does not mean the end of banks and credit card companies or their existing backend settlement mechanisms, nor does it pose a threat to telecom companies.
And this is the biggest challenge Sam is facing - to sell the idea to make banks, merchants, telecom companies and regulators understand.
He says that the digital wallet will herald the era of mobile money. It is a revolutionary idea indeed and Sam is closely guarding it, having obtained 30 patents and filed 2000 IP ( intellectual property) claims on it.