Leaders of electronic commerce - names like IBM, Microsoft, Netscape, and Citibank - dominated the membership list of a consortium announced in April to develop Internet payment standards. But a virtual unknown (pardon the pun) was also listed - GC Tech Inc. Even Thomas K. Wills, co-chairman of the consortium - known as the Joint Electronic Payments Initiative - was vague. "Nobody knows too much about them," he said. But GC Tech, formed a year and a half ago by a group of French cryptographers, intends to raise its profile. In March, bolstered by $3 million in venture capital, its principals swallowed their Gallic pride and moved their headquarters from Paris to New York, where they aim to obtain more capital and license their Internet payment product to as many American banks as possible. "Let's face it, this is the only market where you can raise money for such a product," said Laurent Adamowicz, a Paris-based investment banker who provided GC Tech's seed capital two years ago and is now working to raise an additional $10 million to $20 million. Mr. Adamowicz was recently named the company's chairman. GC Tech's product line, Globe ID, includes an Internet "wallet" and "cash register" similar in name and function to products offered by Cybercash Inc. of Reston, Va., which GC Tech considers its chief competitor. Cybercash - also a partner in the Joint Electronic Payments Initiative - views GC Tech as a question mark. "I really don't know much about them," said Magdalena Yesil, vice president. GC Tech also compares itself to two other companies: First Virtual Holdings Inc. of San Diego and Digicash Inc. of Amsterdam, which are similarly trying to sell banks on the virtues of their Internet payment architectures. Like those rivals, GC Tech has encountered some hesitation among the American banks it is pursuing. "It's fairly major work to get a major institution to endorse us," Mr. Adamowicz said. "Those big banks are trying to figure out their own strategies and haven't resolved all the issues internally." GC Tech is trying to distinguish itself as a "bank-friendly" Internet payment provider. Banks that license Globe ID can put their own brand names on the product, and GC Tech's corporate and product names remain invisible. "We're providing a piece of software that integrates the traditional systems within the bank with the Internet," Mr. Adamowicz explained. "We provide a front end." Banks that license Globe ID serve as "trusted third parties," Mr. Adamowicz said, offering digital authentication and clearing of payments between merchants and consumers. With the bank as intermediary, no credit card numbers travel over public channels, Mr. Adamowicz said. The system is patented in 28 countries, he said. "One of the ways we're very different is that all of the private information resides with a trusted third party, not on a consumer's PC," said Fabrice de Comarmond, executive vice president of GC Tech. "GC Tech does not clear the transaction as Cybercash does," Mr. de Comarmond said. "So we're not competing with our trusted third party. We're not interested in operating the technology - we're just selling it to banks." Other distinguishing factors, GC Tech officials say, are that Globe ID can support 200 currencies, operate in six languages, and accommodate "family" as well as "corporate" wallets. A family wallet can be used by more than one member, and a teenager, for example, could be blocked from using the Internet to order alcoholic beverages. Phoebe Simpson, an analyst at Jupiter Communications in New York, said she was impressed by Globe ID's multicurrency capacity. "GC Tech is looking at a larger picture and looking at a future of on-line commerce in a way that is very expansive and global," Ms. Simpson said. Despite its low name-recognition in the United States, GC Tech has had some licensing successes. Banks in France, Brazil, and Japan have signed up, and the company is wooing others in Israel, China, and Australia. Bank licenses cost between $400,000 and $2 million. The French-born company says it had $2.3 million of revenue last year, mostly from licensing. A prospectus prepared by Broadview Associates for GC Tech's private placement projects $9 million in revenue this year and $25 million in 1997 from licensing Globe ID. The company also anticipates transaction fees ranging from 0.05% to 5% of each sale when the system is up and running. Compagnie Bancaire, an affiliate of the Paribas group and a leading French credit card processor, is testing Globe ID and plans to introduce it this fall in several European countries, Mr. Adamowicz said. "One could imagine that the wallet is just one more service offered by the bank, both to retail customers and to merchants," Mr. de Comarmond added. The system is also being tested through France Telecom's Minitel on-line service, which is similar to America Online or Prodigy. The French communications agency created a mass-market infrastructure by giving away the Minitel terminals, and the interactive services now generate more than $2 billion in revenue. About 30 merchants accept payments through Globe ID on the Minitel system. Consumers can buy articles from newspapers like Le Monde and Liberation and pay for them through Globe ID. They can also get stock quotes or order champagne. The next step is for GC Tech to make its name in the United States. It has 30 employees in Paris and five in New York, but plans call for recruiting about 30 more for the U.S. office this year. Signing up big-name banks will be the first priority. "The main question banks ask is: How much work internally does it require to get our systems going?" Mr. Adamowicz said. "Our assessment has been that it's pretty much a nine-month exercise for a major bank." James S. Miller, a research scientist at the World Wide Web Consortium - known as W3C - and an organizer of the Joint Electronic Payments Initiative, said GC Tech has "a very viable payment system," but he added that even the alliance partners have questions about its logistics. Mr. Miller, who works at W3C's base at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said GC Tech approached the consortium about becoming a member, and organizers were impressed by its credentials. "Two of the tech people there come from INRIA (the French national research institute) and seemed to be extremely high-caliber," he said. A broader question facing GC Tech and its competitors, electronic commerce experts say, is whether the market will support multiple payment vehicles for the Internet. Might smaller technology purveyors be squeezed out by well-heeled giants like MasterCard and Visa? "One of the broader trends in electronic commerce is to disintermediate the middlemen," said Mr. Wills, who is senior program manager at the CommerceNet consortium, which worked with W3C on the Joint Electronic Payments Initiative. "Here we are with new third parties that have sprung up to fill a need that's not here now. But that's before the real heavy hitters have come in." GC Tech officials said Internet commerce will grow enough to support several systems. Their system will win out, they maintain, because it is unobtrusive and makes consumers feel good about shopping on the Net. "When you enter a store in the real world," Mr. de Comarmond said, "you don't enter to pay, you enter to buy."
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