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Smart cards wise up with Java

Siemens licenses Sun?s Java technology for use in smart-card chips.

    Java will put the smarts in chips from Siemens AG that power smart cards, devices that can serve as intelligent personal ID cards.

    Sun Microsystems announced today that it has licensed Java technology to Siemens for use in its chips integrated into smart cards.

    Smart cards generally come in two varieties: memory cards and true smart cards. Memory cards hold a small amount of data, such as a dollar amount or the number of minutes of phone time--most telephone cards or debit cards are types of memory cards. True smart cards, on the other hand, contain information about the user, such as personal identification, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and health and allergy information.

    Smart cards have also been positioned as key elements of identification and authentication systems for use with computer networks. Some makers of network computers are already offering smart-card readers--devices that decode the information in smart cards--with their systems because of the ease of use they provide.

    The crux of the Sun-Siemens announcement is that Siemens will use the technology to produce a new line of smart-card chips that accelerates the execution of Java software, or the Java Card Instruction Set.

    Although Java programs can be run on any device for which Java is supported in software--referred to as a Java virtual machine--hardware-based Java interpreters (the kind that will run on the Siemens chips) can run such software faster and with less memory demand.

    Java-capable cards are seen as quintessential multipurpose smart cards, rather than the single-application cards most commonly seen today. Java smart-card makers hope to consolidate several functions, such as banking, long-distance phone service, and identification, within a single smart card.

    Using Sun's Java technology in the cards will also increase the information capacity of the chips and allow them to be used with new applications after the cards have been issued to end-users.

    Siemens also intends to develop hardware for use in new secure commerce products for the Internet. Such products use smart cards for identification, financial accounting, or both.

    The interface technology for smart cards using Java--the "Java Card Application Program Interface," or JAVA API--has been licensed by major smart-card makers in an effort to reach a common standard. Such a standard would speed acceptance of the new technology and, for Siemens, mean its processors would be especially attractive to companies using the API.

    The Java Card programming interface is part of a push by Sun to have Java used in a variety of devices. The Java language was originally developed as a compact programming language for devices that have a limited amount of memory, such as low-cost consumer electronics products. But Sun would like to see the language used in network computers, smart telephones, TV set-top boxes, and handheld devices, among other applications. So far, however, only smart cards and NCs have a specific standard for Java programming.

    The new smart card chips will be based on Siemens? current SLE66CXXs processors. The processors are expected to arrive in volume by mid-1998.