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IBM launches smart-chip consultancy

Big Blue has set up a program designed to help clients take advantage of "smart chips," tiny wireless chips that can perform the duties of a checkout clerk or security guard.

IBM has set up a program designed to help corporate clients take advantage of "smart chips," tiny wireless chips that can perform a variety of functions, including the duties of a checkout clerk or a security guard.

As part of the Smart Machines program, announced Friday by Big Blue's Global Services Division, businesses can turn to IBM to help build a smart-card payment system, for example. Big Blue is working with Safeway in the United Kingdom to set up such a system, which would let customers pay for goods with a smart card instead of a traditional credit card. This could help prevent credit card fraud, IBM said.

Another example of a smart-chip system is eSuds, a program developed by IBM and partner USA Technologies, that manages laundry rooms at college campuses.

eSuds lets students swipe smart cards, which could possibly also be their student ID card, to bill their accounts for washing or drying clothes, said Norm Korrie, general manager of wireless for the Americas at IBM Global Services.

Meanwhile, eSuds also connects washers and driers to the Internet, letting students monitor the status of their wash load or find an empty machine via the Net. When the washer finishes or clothes are dry, the student can receive an e-mail or pager alert.

Although IBM has long worked with smart cards and sold radio frequency identification tags for applications such as inventory tracking, these new technologies have only recently come down in price and received the endorsement of companies such as Visa International.

Visa announced earlier this month that it plans to use smart cards fitted with special tags to allow its customers to conduct transactions such as buying a soda without having to fish for change or swipe a credit card.

"Smart-chip technology, whether it's RFID or smart card, has gotten to the point where it's very cost effective," Korrie said.

Though the bulk of smart card and RFID users are still outside the United States, Korrie said even U.S. companies are starting to come around.

Some of the other services IBM will offer clients include the creation of asset-monitoring systems with RFID tags and other chips that can gather data and supply it to a company's computer system. When a problem arises, the system can alert the proper personnel.

In the eSuds example, for instance, the owner of the washing machines would be able to monitor them via the Internet, looking for machines that are broken or need routine maintenance, Korrie said.