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Smart cards let NC users roam

Companies pushing network computers as alternatives to PCs unveil a smart card standard that allows users to sign on to different NCs.

Companies pushing network computers (NCs) as alternatives to PCs today unveiled a standard that would allow users to use smart cards from multiple makers to sign onto NCs from different vendors.

Using smart cards with NCs will improve security and enable "roaming," where users can tap their data from separate machines at different locations, the NC advocates said.

Today's announcement of the OpenCard Framework was driven by Oracle subsidiary Network Computer Incorporated along with IBM (IBM), Sun Microsystems (SUNW), and Netscape Communications (NSCP).

Information about the OpenCard Framework will be posted on the Web beginning at noon PT tomorrow.

The announcement is the first major addition to the NC specification, designed to make network computers interoperable, since it was unveiled last May. The OpenCard Framework states that NCs must work with smart cards that use JavaSoft's JavaCard API and PKCS-11, a public key cryptography standard for smart cards.

Gemplus and leading smart card vendors were involved in defining the OpenCard Framework, the NC backers said, and are working on compatibility among smart cards and NCs.

IBM and Sun said their NCs will incorporate a smart card option by the end of this year. Netscape said Communicator 4.0, its next-generation Web browser due by July, will support smart cards, and NCI said its software will support smart cards later this year.

The NC specification is being turned over to the Open Group to become a formal standard, according to Jim Mitchell of JavaSoft, and the smart card API will be handled similarly.

The Open Group was chosen for its ability to test and certify compliance with the framework, Mitchell said.

The goal of the NC vendors is to make use of NCs and smart cards as easy as using today's debit cards at ATM machines from various banks. Smart cards, plastic cards the size of credit cards with an embedded computer chip, haven't caught on in the United States as quickly as in Asia and Europe, but NC boosters think the inclusion of smart cards in the NC protocol may spur demand for smart cards in America.