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Motorola, Matsushita in smart card pact

The duo announce plans to develop a new kind of chip for smart cards, designed for more complex applications.

Motorola's Semiconductor Products Sector (MOT) and Matsushita Electronics today announced plans to develop a new kind of chip for smart cards, designed for more complex applications.

The first chips from the joint research and development project are due to ship by the end of 1999. The alliance will use FeRAM (Ferroelectric Random Access Memory) rather than the EEPROM (Electrically Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory) currently used in smart cards, in an effort to allow faster transactions and greater data storage capacity.

Smart cards, also called chip cards, are the same size as a credit card but have embedded microchips that can be programmed.

Separately, Motorola announced its first chips for smart card readers, the MC33560 and MC33560A chips, are available now in sample quantities. The readers can be used in set-top boxes, pay TV, phone card readers, mobile phones, PC keyboards, point-of-sale readers, and for access control. The MC33560A is designed for portable applications.

In their joint project, Mashustita and Motorola are betting that as smart cards catch on for e-commerce, security, automated highway toll payments, and other uses, more complex applications will require more memory and greater speed.

The chip will combine Matsushita Electronics' advanced FeRAM memory and a Motorola microprocessor, Japan's Nihon Keizai Shimbun reports. The memory, which retains data after being turned off, features low power consumption and high transmission and access speeds. Motorola will initially procure memory from Matsushita for making chips, but will eventually produce FeRAM on its own through a licensing agreement, the Japanese newspaper reported.

Two giant French smart card manufacturers, Gemplus and Schlumberger, hold the lion's share of the smart-card market, but as the market grows, Motorola, Matsushita, Xicor, and others are jumping in.

The research partners say FeRAM combines speeds 20 times faster than existing EEPROM technology with up to 10 times greater memory capacity. FeRAM-based smart card chips could have capacities of 64K or 128K, compared with the 8K to 16K commonly available. FeRAM's low power requirements make it attractive for handheld terminals or "contactless" smart cards that can be read with a detection beacon.