Smart-card makers join Java team

The now-ubiquitous Java programming language has been endorsed by just about everyone. This week, makers of smart cards are chiming in.

3 min read
The Java train just keeps on rolling.

The now-ubiquitous Java programming language has been endorsed by just about everyone in the computer industry. This week, makers of smart cards are chiming in, endorsing Java as a means for enabling a new generation of cards that manufacturers hope will finally make smart cards as popular in the United States as they are in Europe.

At the largest U.S. trade show ever devoted to smart cards--CardTech/SecurTech '97, in Orlando, Florida--smart-card makers this week disclosed plans for multipurpose cards that use Java as a way to custom-program card functions.

Smart cards are similar to standard credit cards but have an embedded microprocessor. Smart cards are popular in Europe for electronic cash uses but have not caught on in the United States for a variety of reasons, from a scarcity of smart-card readers to the lack of a standard for smart-card design.

Now, smart-card makers are turning to Java as a way to make the cards more versatile, and, they hope, more appealing.

Today Schlumberger Electronic Transactions, a giant manufacturer of smart-cards, announced that SGS Thomson and Texas Instruments, which make semiconductors for smart cards, have licensed Schlumberger's Java Virtual Machine, called Solo.

Two other chip heavyweights, Motorola and Hitachi said they too intend to license Solo and its code to "Java-tize" their smart-card chips.

Schlumberger's announcement today followed its news yesterday that it has created an "open technology platform," based on the JavaCard API from Sun Microsystems' JavaSoft unit, for secure multiple application smart cards.

GemPlus, another major smart-card manufacturer, said yesterday that its first multiapplication cards for banks will be available next month.

Schlumberger will make the platform available to financial institutions that are members of Visa International, which in March declared the JavaCard would be the basis for its platform for multiuse smart cards. Specifications are due by year's end.

Last week MasterCard outlined its own multiapplication card strategy, based on technology from Mondex, in which MasterCard holds a 51 percent interest. Mondex's technology today is not based on Java, but MasterCard said it would work with JavaSoft on the next version of the JavaCard release, signaling MasterCard's intent to move its smart cards to Java too.

Multiapplication smart cards appeal to financial institutions as a way to reduce fraud by consolidating credit, debit, and electronic cash on one smart card. But banker appeal alone isn't enough to cause a changeover--applications like the Internet and building-security and so-called loyalty programs are seen as crucial.

"You can't make a business case for smart cards based on financial applications alone," said Tom Lebsack, Schlumberger director of marketing. "With more applications, you can amortize costs across multiple industries."

For example, putting credit and debit cards on smart cards requires upgrading card readers used by merchants and restaurants to accept smart cards, a costly upgrade. VeriFone, the dominant provider of those countertop machines, just introduced an add-on device to extend smart-card capabilities to some of its existing terminals.

The first Gemplus multiapplication cards will carry a core set of applications--credit, debit, stored value, loyalty--but Gemplus software will let banks customize the cards for other uses too, including building access and personal information storage.

"We will create products that can carry all applications in the future," said Scott Rau, Gemplus vice president for North America. "The goal is to create products that are open in architecture and delivered through members of Visa and MasterCard."