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-- by Amy Helen Johnson
Tomorrow's ATM could be as close as your PC. Recent releases of smart-card readers are breaking one of the barriers to digital commerce.
Technology vendors and financial institutions alike are touting smart cards as a universal payment method: as portable as cash, more secure than credit cards and flexible enough to be used at both the shopping mall and the cybermall. Although a smart card looks like a credit card, it contains a chip that stores data-such as a monetary value-and provides secure identification in the form of a digital certificate or signature.
At present, however, there's a catch-22: too few users for businesses to develop smart-card options and too few options to interest consumers.
But some bank trials are slowly seeding both the retail marketplace and the general public by giving away specialized card readers. In addition, several vendors have unveiled smart-card devices that can be attached to your existing PC and that are available through retail channels. For example, the SwapSmart reader from SCM Microsystems plugs into a Type II PC Card slot. And in October, Hewlett-Packard will ship a keyboard with an integrated smart-card reader.
Internet shopping is a natural target for smart-card systems, because they address many of the concerns about putting financial data online. However, smart cards require chip-to-chip communication, limiting current uses to situations involving a physical smart-card reader. Vendors such as VeriFone, which develops smart-card transaction software, and Microsoft, whose IE 4.0 Wallet can be upgraded to store smart-card-compliant digital cash, are now working on Web-enabled solutions.