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Microsoft puts smart card on table

The software giant unveils an operating system for smart cards, a move that could provide a major boost for the technology.

Microsoft has announced an extension of its Windows operating system aimed at smart cards.

Smart cards, which have very limited memory and processing power, are about the size of a credit card and embedded with a computer chip. The technology is used for storing data on mobile phones, banking online, and paying for phone calls and public transit fares.

Microsoft vice president Paul Maritz announced the operating system initiative today at Cartes 98, a conference on smart card technology in Paris.

A new system from Microsoft could bring more acceptance of smart cards in the United States. Smart cards have been used in Europe, which holds more than 80 percent of the market, but have been slow to progress in America, at least in part beacuse of the lack of a standard operating system.

Microsoft is bidding to enter that arena, but Sun Microsystems is already active in that space with its JavaCard specification. In addition, Mondex, an e-cash company controlled by MasterCard has its MultOS system designed so cards with different operating systems can work together.

The company's interest in a smart cards parallels its strategy with Windows CE, a stripped-down version of its PC operating system for consumer electronics devices. In April, Microsoft announced a version of Windows CE for automobiles, gas pumps, industrial controllers, and other uses.

The smart-card initiative seeks to go after even smaller, cheaper devices--particularly when rival Sun is targeting the same business. The Microsoft spokesman said card developers could use existing Windows tools to work with their software.

The annual Paris show is a major showcase for the smart card industry. Schlumberger, a major French manufacturer of smart cards, today unveiled new software for its cards that transforms a smart card into a security device to identify its holder.

Many PC makers have said they will produce machines with smart-card readers built in, a capability that Microsoft has provided in its desktop PC operating systems. Microsoft has a certification and logo program that indicates smart card systems work with Windows NT.