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Sun finds new outlet for Java: credit cards

The Java creator is set to announce two major adopters of its Java Card technology: high-tech credit cards from American Express and Citibank.

Sun Microsystems today will announce two major adopters of its Java Card technology: high-tech credit cards from American Express and Citibank.

As reported earlier, American Express will use the Java Card technology on its recently launched "Blue" card, and Citibank will use it in an upcoming corporate payment and identity card, said Pat Sueltz, head of Sun's software and Java efforts.

Sun's Java Card technology enables a type of "smart card," essentially a special-purpose computer the size of a credit card, with its own microprocessor and memory. Smart cards, while popular in Europe, haven't made much headway in displacing older and less sophisticated models in the United States.

Sun's Java Card technology lets smart cards run simple programs written in the Java programming language. That feature allows programs to be run on several different Java cards regardless of what actual chips they're based on.

The Citibank card won't just be useful for making purchases, Sun and Citibank said. The card also will function as an electronic ID, letting users identify themselves, log on to computers, encrypt communications, and digitally sign electronic documents. Sun itself will use the Citibank card for its 35,000 employees, the company said.

The Citibank and American Express deals are a major boost to Sun's effort to spread its Java technology as widely as possible. The Java software initiative is among the industry's most ambitious, with Sun endeavoring to convince computing companies to use it in everything from smart cards to high-powered servers.

But it hasn't been easy for Sun to convince the industry to embrace the philosophy that every computing device should have Java abilities. Sun's JavaOne conference, which opens today in San Francisco, is in its fifth year, but Java still hasn't become a common component beyond Internet browsers and e-commerce sites.

David Gee
VP of Product Marketing
Sun Microsystems
Explaining the standardized nature of the technology.
While Sun's Java hasn't conquered the computing landscape in the five years since its official introduction, it has made progress.

In another significant win, Sun will announce today that Sega's Dreamcast video-game console will come with a version of Java as well, Sueltz said. One Java software package will augment existing games so they can be played with players connected over the Internet, said George Paolini, vice president of Java community development at Sun.

Sega's Java software was developed by Planetweb, Sun said.

The use of Java in gadgets has become important to service providers such as telecommunications companies and device manufacturers such as Motorola, Paolini said, acknowledging that consumers who buy those services or gadgets don't yet look for a "powered by Java" label. "Getting that message to the consumers is the next step," he said.

Motorola, one of Sun's biggest Java allies in the device market, agrees. It will announce the adoption of Java in all wireless devices, Paolini said.

Though Sun charges companies to license Java technology, it still doesn't look at the software as a major revenue source, Sueltz said. Instead, the money will come when companies spread Internet capabilities to all manner of computing devices, including cell phones, cars and factory robots. That in turn will increase customers for Sun's high-end computers and consulting services to get everything working.

Microsoft, a perpetual Sun foe, is no less ambitious, and it doesn't have Sun's hardware revenue source. Microsoft has its own smart-card aspirations.

One hurdle for smart cards has been that it takes a different type of machine to use them. Indeed, Sun chief executive Scott McNealy has been urging computer conference attendees to install smart-card readers as widely as possible.

Paolini acknowledges the infrastructure hurdle but argues that American Express will help change that. "The problem is that in the U.S., the infrastructure is built around magnetic stripe readers," the familiar slots through which customers or checkout clerks slide credit cards, Paolini said. New cards come with both smart-card abilities and traditional magnetic strips, allowing them to fit into the existing credit card universe.