This Christmas, shoppers in Europe are discovering new uses for mobile phones as technology barriers that have prevented mass-market take-up are overcome, spurred on by Apple's iPhone.
A host of new services that can deliver discount vouchers to phones, compare prices of vendors in a vicinity or direct shoppers to online stores are becoming easy to find and use, and they hold attractions for marketers as well as consumers.
Amazon has a new addition to its mobile store that lets iPhone users send it a picture of any object, to which it responds with a link to the closest match it has for sale, and options to buy the item at once or put it in a shopping basket for later purchase on a PC.
A recent test by this correspondent found Amazon delivered an exact match for books, and suggestions of artificial Christmas trees in response to a photo of a real one.
The increasing sophistication of camera phones and software that can read images means that much can now be done without the need to deploy expensive hardware to support specific technologies that hampered widespread adoption in the past.
Systems such as near-field communications, in which phones can be waved at readers to carry out transactions, or 2D barcodes which can be sent to phones and used, for example, as boarding passes, require special software and readers.
2D barcode technology is widespread in some markets, notably Japan, but analysts and people in the industry argue that those who have not yet invested in such technology have limited reasons to do so now.
Barcodes are from the days when a scanner couldn't read an image, says Andrew Bud, executive chairman of leading mobile transaction network mBlox, which provides a link between delivery and billing of mobile services around the world.
Bud says, however, that where organizations have already made investments in 2D barcode technology, such as in much of the international airline industry, it is likely here to stay for some time -- and it also has specific uses for marketing.
Consumers can be tempted to snap a 2D barcode image from a poster, for example, to receive messages or vouchers from the advertiser -- a useful direct marketing tool.
Market leader NeoMedia has recently inked deals with mobile operator Telefonica in Latin America and with phone maker Sony Ericsson to use its technology and pre-install it in phones.
And Google also recently launched a service whereby businesses can put a 2D barcode up in their window, searchers can scan it with any camera- and application-enabled phone, then read reviews and even get mobile coupons on the spot.
Mobile coupon usage alone is likely to triple over the next five years to reach over 300 million users by 2014, led by the United States and Western Europe, according to a report this month by high-tech consultancy Juniper Research.
For marketers, mobile coupon campaigns sent using location-based applications can be much more effectively targeted than the scattergun approach of traditional coupons, Juniper wrote.
Jonathan Mew, head of mobile at the UK Internet Advertising Bureau, agrees that sending vouchers to mobile phones has obvious advantages for both consumers and advertisers over online vouchers that have to be printed out.
Vouchering on the mobile phone is probably one of the biggest untapped areas. It's certainly an area in which we're looking to do much more next year, he says.
Such operations are no longer dependent on special, expensive phones or point-of-sale equipment in stores.
British women's fashion chain Oasis this month launched a gift-voucher service that lets consumers send gift vouchers to one another by SMS, through a partnership with ambitious start-up Eagle Eye Solutions.
Eagle Eye's technology allows stores to redeem vouchers purchased online through their existing chip-and-PIN machines, which are widely used for secure payments in Europe.
The company already has partnerships with electronic goods chain Comet, Harveys and Corney & Barrow wine bars, in which customers can buy each other instant drinks vouchers through a scheme called buymeabeer.com.
Director Steve Rothwell says Eagle Eye will have a relationship with at least one major representative from each retail goods category by the middle of next year.
The company estimates the total UK voucher market to be worth about 1.4 billion pounds ($2.2 billion), and the far more advanced U.S. market around $70 billion.
Vouchering could also be one way to solve the conundrum that has stopped the mobile advertising market from taking off: worries about the small size of the screen, and advertisers' concerns about being seen as intrusive.
You can't spam people. but if you click on a mobile advert in the context of something else, or you see something on the web, a mobile voucher is a fantastic way of delivering value from the Web to the physical world, says mBlox's Bud.