If the Internet becomes the commercial medium that many business people are betting it will be, they can rest assured that the payments infrastructure will be ready.
But one big question nags: How big is that if?
Stores and malls are sprouting on the Internet. Leaders in the transaction processing market - from First Data Corp. to Verifone Inc., from payment-system start-ups like First Virtual Holdings to major merchant-acquiring banks - have developed systems and are jockeying for position to support the credit card portion of what is loosely defined as electronic commerce.
Their market could be huge, whether it is 30 million worldwide Internet users, or 35 million PC-equipped households in the United States, or perhaps almost all 98 million households if a more advanced type of telephone or interactive television technology takes hold.
But the payment servicers, while in an advanced state of preparedness, concede it will take a while for electronic commerce to reach mass-market proportions.
"Things are happening, but no real volumes are coming through these systems yet," said David Campbell, executive vice president of payment services at KeyCorp in Cleveland.
Mr. Campbell has grown familiar with the Internet through the creation of KeyCorp's critically acclaimed KeyNN Web site. He has studied the commerce potential, particularly as it relates to the small-business orientation of KeyCorp's credit card acquiring business.
"I'm not nearly as bullish as some observers are about the prospect of payments flowing over the Internet," Mr. Campbell said.
"We'll see more evidence of success as time goes on, but no real volumes are coming through. ... They are not making me change my business plans."
To be sure, the technology will be there when Mr. Campbell and his customers are ready. And electronic commerce is already on a growth curve.
Killen & Associates, a Palo Alto, Calif., provider of research to banks and other electronic commerce aspirants, sees interactive transactions broadly defined rising from less than $10 billion in 1995 to almost $2 trillion in 2005.
The Internet, currently accounting for a negligible portion of that volume, will eventually take on the majority, Killen said.
"It's still a blip, but it's rapidly growing," said Chuck White, manager of First Data Corp.'s direct commerce effort in Palo Alto.
An underlying assumption is that beyond the technology - most experts agree that the security necessary for payment safety will soon be in place - consumers will have to get prepared psychologically.
"We don't know how long that will take," Mr. Campbell said.
"It's a fact - people are reluctant to put their bank card numbers out where somebody might be able to steal them," said Fred Gumbel, chief executive officer of Vital Processing Services, the joint acquiring venture of Visa U.S.A. and Total System Services Inc.
Just last week, Vital announced its support of payments through Cybercash, one of the Internet ventures that, to date, have had the effect of ushering MasterCard and Visa transactions onto the Web. Steve Berardo, Vital's executive vice president, said merchant processors are gearing up to satisfy retailers' desire for a single source to handle "the full spectrum of access methods."
In the same vein, Vital's bigger rival, First Data, is carrying its acquiring strategy, merchant-bank alliances and all, onto the Net. (See previous articles in this section.) "As a processor, we will support what the clients need," said Scott Loftesness, chief of product development in First Data's electronic funds services unit.
Thanks to the card associations' Secure Electronic Transactions protocol, "we can make it easy for merchants to do business on their chosen platform," Mr. White said. It will be "more secure than mail order and telephone order card transactions today."
The First Data officials are less sure about the timing of consumer response. "Consumer behavior and merchant behavior have to change - they have no real incentive to use the Internet," said Mr. Loftesness. "The marketing aspect is also at an immature stage."
"What's needed for the industry to explode is beginning to happen," said Roger Bertman, general manager of Verifone's Internet commerce division. "The value propositions for the merchant, the financial institution relationship, and consumer purchase behavior are all critically important and have to be thought through."