Smart cards are becoming the next great frontier for top hardware and software vendors as a vehicle for lowering the cost of PC ownership while increasing security.
Microsoft Corp., Netscape Communications Corp. and Oracle Corp. are pushing separate endeavors to promote smart card architectures, joining forces with telcos and hardware makers.
Smart cards, which can incorporate everything from basic encryption algorithms to full-blown applications and storage, are considered a crucial enabling technology for network computers and the NetPC design from Microsoft and Intel Corp.
The Microsoft-led PC/SC Workgroup--which includes Hewlett-Packard Co. and smart card maker Schlumberger Electronic Transactions Inc., among others--last week released its first specifications for using smart cards as peripherals to PCs.
Netscape, meanwhile, has quietly been developing its own standards as head of the SIG (Security Infrastructure Group), which counts among its 50 members VeriSign Inc., Wells Fargo Bank and Chrysler Corp. The forthcoming Netscape Communicator groupware client will support smart cards, said officials in Mountain View, Calif.
Oracle, whose Network Computer reference design includes a smart card interface, is a member of the Global Chipcard Alliance, which also includes telecom providers such as US West Communications, GTE and Bell Canada.
The Global Chipcard Alliance's architecture has a smart card operating system for accessing personal data on generic Internet appliances, said sources.
The lure of smart cards lies within the EEPROM (electronically erasable programmable ROM) built into the silicon of each card. EEPROM lets vendors write and rewrite basic data such as passwords for local or remote access to networks or PCs.
Microsoft will support smart cards and card readers--devices that house the cards and link them to PCs--in Windows 95, Windows NT and Internet Explorer next year, said officials in Redmond, Wash.
HP plans to release next year a keyboard with an integrated smart card reader, and also plans to include smart card readers and applications in some of its PCs in 1997, said a source close to the Palo Alto, Calif., company.
Schlumberger, which already produces PC Card readers, will begin producing RS-232C and PS/2-based readers in February, said officials at the company's San Jose, Calif., office.
Gemplus America Inc., a member of Netscape's SIG, next week will ship its first public-key smart card. The card features 2K bytes of memory. Gemplus will upgrade that to 8K bytes in 1997, said officials in Montgomeryville, Pa.
Some corporate users considering network computers are eager to have the security that smart cards offer. "Smart cards seem to be a natural extension of NCs; they're so effective at network security," said Jeff Marshall, senior managing director of technologies at Bear, Stearns & Co., in New York.
"I could access an intranet with very specific configurations from any workstation or a hotel NC with just a card," said Peter Pollack, chief technologist for MTV/Showtime networks, in New York. "But the marketplace demands one standard from all these different architectures."
Officials at all three consortia said their specifications will be platform-independent.