MIAMI - Proton World International, known best for its electronic purse application, is the latest European smart card company to cross the pond.
The Brussels chip company announced Thursday that it would open a sales office in Orlando in July, with the hope of establishing an early presence in what it said would become one of the largest markets for smart cards in the world.
"We expect the North American market for smart cards to grow rapidly in the next two years," said Graham Frost, deputy managing director of Proton World, "and by making an early investment we expect Proton World to capture a large slice of it."
Other leading European chip developers, such as Gemplus, Schlumberger, and Oberthur Card Systems, have had a major presence in the United States for years. But Proton's announcement was characteristic of the sentiment felt by other European chip companies at the CardTech/SecurTech conference here this week. Proton's majority owner, Banksys, a secure payment systems developer from Belgium, launched its latest card terminal here, and by signing deals with the Pathways Group and CyberPro, it is positioning itself as a "high-end, leading edge" payment technology provider in North America.
Proton already has strong U.S. endorsements in hand; it is owned in part by American Express Co. and Visa International. Banksys, a consortium of 64 Belgian banks, owns a 60% stake, and Amex, Visa, Interpay, and Erg each has 10%.
American Express holds a nonexclusive Proton license, and Mr. Frost said he thinks the New York credit card issuer will eventually put Proton's CEPS application, the Common Electronic Purse Specifications for stored value cards, on its Blue card. The other Proton licensees in North America are Pathways and a consortium of Canadian banks led by the Bank of Montreal.
Mr. Frost said licensing American Express was a major boon, but he was quick to point out that Blue's card base would be only a small part of Proton's overall business. "We think Amex is going to be a major innovator," he said. "But right now they only have two million cards out there."
There are 32 million Proton cards in the world, and next year an additional 30 million are to be distributed in Mexico, Mr. Frost said. SmartAxis BV, an Internet company based in Amsterdam, is working with Proton; Inbursa, Mexico's leading clearing bank; and Telmex, Mexico's national telephone operator to load Mexican pesos onto the Proton e-purse. SmartAxis offers a multicurrency payment service for low-value transactions over the Internet and mobile networks.
Proton's new U.S. office is to be responsible for sales leads from North, Central, and South America. Initially, Proton said, it will hire a head of North American operations and three other employees but plans to open more U.S. offices soon.
Mr. Frost said the explosion of Internet commerce will push the U.S. market into smart card acceptance. Fifty percent of fraud occurs on the Internet, but e-commerce accounts for only 1% of business, he said. He also said that 80% of business-to-consumer payments online are micropayments of less than $10. "That is not viable for card companies," Mr. Frost said. "The answer is to use e-purse on the Internet."
"There has to be a huge change in how we do business to change this," he said. "Smart cards are the best and only answer."
Armand Linkens, managing director of Proton World, said the United States must move quickly on chip technology or be left behind. "If the American payment industry doesn't act fast enough," he said, "they are under threat from European banks who are pushing forward with mobile commerce."