More questions than answers were raised by speakers addressing mobile commerce at a Hong Kong conference yesterday, with them agreeing only that m-commerce should be better than e-commerce because people were used to paying for services on mobile phones. Beyond that there are security, billing and data-privacy issues, such as how much commercial messaging users will tolerate. Other questions include whether phone companies will carry the credit risk for large online purchases, who will own the usage data generated and how it will be protected from hacking. Laurie Kan, chief executive and president of investment group i100, said the solutions to these problems were still being sought. 'What I see is that people are experimenting with ways of collecting data and pushing information,' he said. Panellists at Businessweek's e.biz Forum discussed ideas ranging from discount coupons sent to mobile phones when customers entered a restaurant's geographical range, 'smart cars' with Internet-connected computers in dashboards, to infrared-enabled phones that could be used to pay for parking or speeding tickets. Several speakers emphasised new content must be developed for the phones' smaller screens. Douglas Lamont, marketing professor from DePaul University in Chicago, said manga cartoons, haiku poetry and pictures of snow falling on the mountains of Hokkaido were some of the most successful content products on Japan's i-mode service. 'Let's just dig a grave for the old content and bury it,' Mr Lamont said. However, Mr Kan said that although the prospects of commerce and content seemed most exciting, even Japan's mobile-phone companies - the most successful at selling data services over mobile networks - made most of their money from communications services, which included voice calls and messaging. Developers needed to look at making these functions work even more efficiently for the end-user. 'So my reminder is about optimising communications and messaging,' Mr Kan said. For a credit-card company such as Visa International, the important issues in m-commerce included user authentication and which parties would bear the credit risk for large purchases made with mobile devices. The ability to confirm the identity of a card user protects issuers from 'repudiation', when an account holder can deny having made a purchase. Bruce Mansfield, Visa's head of m-commerce and new channels, said: 'The cardholder repudiation issue is probably the biggest issue for us.' He said 2 per cent to 3 per cent of Visa's transactions took place on the Internet, with grocery purchases among the most popular. Public key infrastructure (PKI), a technology that assigns merchants and end-users individual 'keys' that identify them, was suggested as a possible solution to security and authentication problems of m-commerce. But possible stumbling blocks exist, with experts suggesting wireless PKI encryption may not be strong enough to resist hacking and the technology may not mature for several years. Mr Lamont, whose consulting projects include working with manufacturers to install Internet connections in cars, said there was no perfect security, and that complete mobile-data privacy would be hard to achieve. 'There is no privacy, you just have to accept that,' he said. If wireless PKI was perfected by 2006, 'someone's going to find a way around it', he said. It seemed certain, however, that end-users would pay for the content or services they accessed. 'Now, we are not going to pay a high price, but there will be a price,' Mr Lamont said. Then came the thorny issue of marketing over mobile networks. How will mobile-phone companies differentiate between the customer who wants to be notified about 10 discounted dining options available within a two-block radius and the customer who finds it annoying? Mr Mansfield said: 'Clearly from a consumer perspective, I would want to be opting in.' Mr Lamont said laws were being proposed in the United States to make it illegal to send unsolicited mobile-phone messages. 'We have a very litigious society, so I imagine somebody will sue over junk text messages,' he said. Mr Lamont was among panellists who thought business-to-business applications might leapfrog consumer use in mobile data and commerce, but even that area had problems. There might be installations of technologies such as 802.11b, which allows data to be transferred over short distances, in airport lounges, but isolated deployments were of limited use, some said.