E-COMMERCE has become a household word, usually referring to the process of buying things with the help of a PC and a Web browser.

Lesser known is M-commerce, which refers to buying online, using a phone, handheld computer or some other portable device.

Yep, the ãmââ stands for ãmobile.ââ Lots of people thought M-commerce would work like E-commerce on the PC; call up the Web browser on the phone, pick what you want and wait a few days for it to come in the mail.

From early indications at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show though, things might not turn out that way. Palm and Nokia, the big kahunas in handheld computers and cell phones respectively, demonstrated M-commerce methods in Las Vegas last week that were wonderfully intriguing, and were also nothing like surfing the Web on a PC.

In Palmâs case, an effort with Visa International will allow users to load their Visa information into their handheld, turning the Palm into a credit card for use in physical stores.

How do you swipe a handheld computer through a credit card terminal? You donât. Instead, you beam the credit card data to the terminal using the infrared port atop every device.

It sounds complicated but itâs not; infrared ports are cheap and easy to install in credit card terminals that donât have them already. Once the Palm beams the data, the credit card terminal treats it the same way it would a card swipe.

This Palm-Visa thing would be little more than a clever balancing act on the monkey bars of technology if not for this important detail: The credit card terminal beams data back to the Palm.

That means the customer gets a digital receipt, plus coupons or other goodies. This scenario should get you thinking about the potential benefits of this. On a business trip, you make all purchases through a Palm, using the company credit card.

The Palm time-stamps each transaction, and the next time the Palmâs data is synced with a PC, the transactions are added automatically to your expense report.

All that is a while off, and Palm might not do the expense report idea at all; the company is saying its first priority is to tie the credit card feature to coupons and loyalty programmes like frequent-flier miles. Still, we can dream about the possibilities.

A note on the Palm-Visa beam-buying idea: be excited, but also be warned. Every time it gets easier for us to shoot data into a computing device, it also gets easier for cyber-terrorists to infect our devices with viruses.

Once we start sharing more information on mobile gadgets, we will also need to install anti-virus software on them, the way we get shots at the beginning of flu season. Nokiaâs M-commerce effort might be even more tantalizing, and closer to becoming reality.

Hereâs how Nokiaâs scheme would work: You walk into a fast-food joint and touch your Nokia phone to a pad near the door. The pad tells the credit card company you have entered the place. After ordering your calorie-rich cuisine, you again touch the phone to a pad, this time near the cash register ÷ and the meal is automatically charged to your credit card.

This retail magic is courtesy of smart card technology, much like the cards many people touch to a pad to enter office buildings every day. In Nokiaâs case the card, made by a company called 2Scoot, will be molded into the shape of a face plate and will snap onto the front of a phone.

Nokia is already testing the smart card payment system at a few fast-food chain stores in North Carolina, and has plans for a gradual roll out on the East Coast in the second half of this year.