Wireless technology is making the stunts on Star Trek seem plausible.
A service introduced last month would make it possible for people to "beam" money to others. An electronic signal sent via a wireless device would deliver a message with instructions to take money from one account and deposit it into another.
The PayPal.com service lets people send money from credit card or bank accounts by sending an electronic mail message or by using handheld devices like palm pilots, mobile phones, two-way pagers, or PCs.
"We are like Western Union on the Web," said Peter Thiel, chief executive officer of Palo Alto-based Confinity Inc., the company that introduced the service.
Unlike on-line payment systems that require users to know the bank account numbers of recipients, PayPal requires only an e-mail address. Users register for the free service by entering a recipient's e-mail address and a dollar amount at www. paypal.com.
"It is very natural to bundle e-mail with other things such as making payments," Mr. Thiel said. "Most people are on-line, and most people they know are on-line and use it every day."
Users are identified by name, credit card number, a maiden name, and mailing address. Initial payments are limited to $100. PayPal mails the user a personal identification number to activate the account.
Money is debited from the payer's account and credited to the recipient. Recipients who are not subscribers can register at the Web site after getting e-mail notifications about payments received. Funds may be withdrawn through electronic transfers or a personal check from Confinity.
The service is available for Internet-enabled cell phones in the United States. It will become available for the Palm operating system before yearend.
"Beaming money instantly, anytime and anywhere, is the next killer application for Web users," Mr. Thiel said. "Sending a message is great, but sending money is better."
About one billion handheld, Web-enabled mobile devices, such as palm pilots and pagers, will be used worldwide by 2003, analysts predict. They also forecast that about one billion Internet-connected cell phones will exist within five years.
"Wireless devices are easy for consumers to use," said Robert Sterling, an analyst at Jupiter Communications Inc. Confinity said it plans to begin a global payment system by the middle of next year. By making person-to-person payments possible through mobile and desktop devices, Confinity would be enabling people to bypass bank-controlled access points to payments, such as credit cards, automated teller machines, and checks.
"We are providing a free service for consumers to access their accounts and money no matter what bank or which credit card they are using," Mr. Thiel said. He added that Confinity could sidestep the recent automated teller machine fee controversies in San Francisco and Santa Monica, Calif. Confinity plans to earn interest on the money circulating through its e-mail system. It also will charge retailers a transaction fee.
Mr. Thiel said the service should handle payments of $10 to $100 and could handle payments of up to several thousand dollars.