It may seem a long march from a master's degree in Chinese philosophy to a career as a high-tech entrepreneur. But William N. Melton, the moving force behind Cybercash and three other technology companies, sees a common thread.
"Almost every job I've ever done, I did because I was curious," Mr. Melton said. "That's how I ended up in the Orient. I knew nothing about it.
"At the time I got into computers, 1971 to 1972, nobody knew anything about them, so it was interesting."
The current subject is the Internet. Mr. Melton sees his job - as he has throughout his career - as translating technological advances into a language that bankers speak.
His role, he said, is to "map the bankers into this new world and then hand back to them the new technology packaged according to their needs."
The CEO of Cybercash hopes his intimate knowledge of banking can translate into on-line payments leadership.
Mr. Melton, 53, has trod this path before. In 1971 he founded Real- Share Inc., which provided data base and telecommunications services for check guarantees and did pioneering work in minicomputers and voice response systems. He sold the company in 1979 to TeleCheck Services (now part of First Data Corp.).
In 1981, he founded the company for which he is best known, Verifone Inc. By mass-distributing point of sale authorization systems, Verifone helped make credit cards ubiquitous.
How does the start of Cybercash compare to Verifone?
"Almost exactly the same, except 10 years are compressed into one," Mr. Melton said.
He founded - and funded - Transaction Network Services in 1991. The Virginia-based transaction processor went public in 1994. Later that year came Cybercash, which was to do for the Net what Verifone did in "retail space." It went public in February.
Despite his track record, Mr. Melton finds the pace of the Internet market "mind-boggling - so much change so fast," he said.
He expects Internet commerce will ride the same arc of acceptance and growth that credit cards did.
"If you look at the evolution of any market or any product, it starts out with kind of a crude, primitive example, and then it tends to differentiate and get finer and finer."
"When we started in the credit card world, it was just a very simple card, but today we have 1,500 versions of the credit card," he said. "The same thing is going to happen" on the Net.
Mr. Melton predicts the rudimentary Internet financial instruments will diversify, addressing specialties in, for example, large-ticket items, payments under 10 cents, and a range of options in between.
Describing himself as "one of those weird, 2% early-adopter types," Mr. Melton said he has purchased between $25,000 and $30,000 of goods through the Internet - mostly with the Cybercash wallet, of course.
"I've bought more computer equipment over the Internet in the last 12 months than I've bought anyplace else," he said. "I buy all my books over the Internet, and all of my wine through Virtual Vineyards."
For the mass market, Mr. Melton sees television-based Internet connections like WebTV, a set-top box with a smart card reader introduced this fall, as a spur to electronic money.
Ultimately, he said, home-based chip card readers will be the link between "the Net-around world and the walk-around world.
"We are moving the banker's teller window past and beyond the merchant's window and literally onto the residential or office desktop," Mr. Melton said. "We are bringing forward those other payment instruments that haven't been electronified before."