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Thu 22 Feb 2001 04:00 AM

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Smart card industry poised for rapid growth

Visa, MasterCard and Microsoft are battling to create the de facto standard for smart card application development. In the mean time, smart card integrators like Orga are driving solution deployment.

Smart card customers, tired of being locked into proprietary solutions, may have to wait a little longer for open standards to emerge in the industry.

Three consortia are battling to emerge as the de facto standard bearer for smart card platforms: one backed by Microsoft, one by Visa and one by MasterCard. The battle, according to smart card industry leaders, is adding complexity for solution developers, which means additional cost and inconvenience for customers.

“Application developers [for smart card solutions] need a standard platform,” asserted Graham Carson, managing director for Orga Card Systems (UK), during a recent visit to Orga’s offices in Dubai.

Carson is optimistic that the standards war will be resolved, although he would not guess which solution would emerge as the leading platform. The establishment of a standard would, he believes, lead to explosive growth in the use of smart card technology. “The smart card industry is going through changes like the PC industry did 15 years ago,” he said. Just as the emergence of Windows as a standard in the PC world led to a massive surge in application development, the same will happen with smart card applications once a standard emerges.

In the mean time, technologies like Java are helping Orga create cross-platform solutions. The company, which describes itself as a smart card integrator, rather than just a smart card manufacturer, is partnering with hardware and software vendors to take turnkey smart card-enabled solutions to market. “We have a development department creating Java-based solutions for customers that don’t even necessarily have to have Orga cards as part of the solution,” explained Carson.

These new solutions are dramatically increasing the number of industries in Europe that include smart card technology. The recently de-regulated power industry in Germany, for example, is creating smart card-based loyalty schemes for customers. The French healthcare system issues everybody with smart cards so that patient information can be accessed from whichever hospital a person visits.

Recent improvements in card technology is also creating new opportunities for mobile phone operators — by far the world’s largest consumers of smart cards.

Saudi Telecom Corporation, for example, is using Orga smart card solutions to develop new markets for its mobile phone services. The recent introduction of pre-paid cards under the operator’s “Friends and Family” scheme was so successful STC followed it up with another “Student” pre-paid card scheme. These smart card solutions give STC the ability to limit the number of phone numbers a customer can call using a certain Sim card.

Similar Orga-based solutions are being used in Kuwait and Egypt.

Standards will have to be ratified, however, before the smart card industry’s dream of people regularly using half a dozen cards in their daily life become reality. The development community is crying out for a single platform to emerge before it pumps resources into developing shrink-wrapped applications for the likes of traffic departments, hospitals, banks, police, and retailers.

That leaves smart card integrators like Orga battling into the wind to increase momentum for the industry. A single standard would have the entire IT industry blowing at their backs.

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