Java is creating a revolution in the smart card industry that promises to bring them into the world of mainstream computing. This is a breakthrough development with far-reaching implications for the smart card and computer industries, businesses and consumers.
From last fall's announcement of the Java Card API by JavaSoft and supporting announcements from smart card manufacturers and major industry players, to the first availability of a smart card that runs Java, the industry has changed dramatically.
Smart cards are the smallest, most "personal" computer. They are the size of credit cards and contain a microprocessor chip for portable data storage and processing power. Invented in the late '70s, advancements in chip technology, new software developments and pull from the markets are combining to accelerate the use of smart cards.
Java is a key element. It delivers the capability to write secure applications on smart cards. As a result, we can: (a) have multiple, "non-cooperating" applications on the same card, and (b) load these applications onto the cards after they are issued.
- Smart cards are becoming more capable as computers. New chips with up to 16 Kbytes of rewritable memory will soon be commonplace, and 32-bit processors are just around the corner.
- We have a new programming language, Java. Even though its inventors probably hadn't thought about running their object-oriented, interpreted language on an 8-bit microprocessor with less memory than the first Apple computers.
- Smart cards are ideal for privacy and security of Internet/Intranet communications and transactions.
With Java, we get "Write Once, Run Anywhereª", a major benefit to card issuers and developers who have been working on proprietary operating systems. Java will help reduce development costs and time-to-market for new products and services.
Smart cards have a long track record, mainly outside the US, as an enabling technology for applications involving money and sensitive information. The major applications have been in banking, where smart cards are used to provide off-line authentication and transaction security; health care, where they enable secure access to information by patients; and mobile telephones, where the GSM standard for digital mobile communications uses them for subscriber identity. Today, chip cards of all types by themselves represent a $1 billion business worldwide, split among a handful of card manufacturers.
But, considering the length of time that smart cards have been around - about as long as PCs - their limited usage, especially in the US, is surprising, until we look closer.
Widespread application development has been limited by the technology itself. With 8-bit CPUs and limited memory, typically less than 20K ROM and EEPROM, applications are written in assembly language on proprietary platforms.
Also, the business case for introducing smart cards into the electronic transactions infrastructure is not as compelling in the US. The present authorization system, based on mag-stripe cards, works well because we have reliable, fast telecommunications.
Finally, the smart card industry has been a relatively small, closely-knit group of companies and institutions - insularity born partly from limitations in the technology, but also because of the strong security requirements. Smart cards, in almost every application, represent money or value to the people who carry them and the businesses that issue them - one of the primary reasons they are so appealing. It is also the major reason that smart cards are being pulled into Internet/Intranet applications.
To better understand the future of smart cards, consider the history, albeit short, of the computer industry. One lesson is clear: It is not the computer technology itself that propels new innovations to the forefront, it is the applications. For Apple it was VisiCalc; for the IBM PC, it was Lotus 1-2-3.
Will there be one for smart cards?
Probably not just one. Smart cards can be used in so many different market segments that multiple-application cards will lead the expansion in the US. This allows the costs to be amortized over several applications, the ones we know about today, plus others that haven't even been thought of. Another lesson is that applications do not come from technology providers. The best applications are still to be written, coming from the imaginations of people like you.
The smart card and software industries are providing two important prerequisites for rapid growth in the smart card industry: standards for smart cards to work with PCs, coming from the PC/SC Workgroup specifications, and an open development environment, coming from Java Card API.
The entry barriers for smart cards are falling, making way for new applications in a wide range of markets. With Java, smart cards can join the world of mainstream computing - and after 20 years, it's about time.
Tom Lebsack is Director of Marketing and Business Development for Schlumberger Smart Cards and Systems, N.A., a smart card pioneer and leader in the technology, recently introducing Cyberflexª, the first-ever smart card to use the Java Card API. (www.slb.com/et).