Java, the computer programming breakthrough from Sun Microsystems Inc., is spreading to smart cards.

Along with its announcement last week of Java Enterprise Computing, presented as a lower-cost alternative to personal computer networks, Sun said it completed a specification for the Java programming language on smart cards.

Sun reported endorsements of its specification from at least a dozen companies, including smart card suppliers Gemplus and Philips, International Business Machines Corp., and Visa International.

Schlumberger, a leading vendor of chip card systems, said it would have a Java-based product line, Cyberflex, on the market early next year.

Known as Java Card API (application program interface), Sun's specification will enable smart cards to be integrated in any system run on Java.

Because Java is not dependent on any computer operating system and is well suited for distribution over open systems like the Internet, smart cards could thus become part of the Java-based electronic commerce programs that are expected to proliferate.

By including smart cards in the mix, Sun can lay claim to true "scalability" - the buzzword for a system's ability to run on equipment of any size.

Much of the recent Java hype centered on slimmed-down network computers, which sit like PCs on the desktop but rely on remote server computers for much of their processing power. These desktop appliances could have smart card readers for network access, security, or financial purposes.

But Java programs, sometimes known as "applets," could reside on, or be delivered to, any number of portable devices, or even be transported on smart cards.

"Java programmers can use the same tools to develop applications for smart cards and pagers, network computers and personal computers, and fault-tolerant servers," said Alan Baratz, president of Sun's Javasoft unit.

At the Java Enterprise Solutions rollout in New York last week, Sun Microsystems chairman Scott McNealy said smart cards could be part of "a compatible and seamless environment from cell phones all the way up to supercomputers ... a truly scalable environment."

Sun said the Java API does for smart cards what it does for computer compatibility in general: As a platform-independent language, it allows applications to be written for virtually all standard chip cards and will cut across proprietary applications that are not interoperable or portable.

"The smart card industry is entering a new era with this announcement," said Marc Lassus, chairman of Gemplus, the French company that is the leading chip card producer. "The increasing demand for open platforms ... and for secure download capabilities better fitted to the fast-moving Internet paradigm are extremely well addressed with the Java Card architecture."

Visa executive vice president Peter B. Gustafson said Java Card is in keeping with the openness principles of the EMV (Eurocard-MasterCard-Visa) and SET (Secure Electronic Transactions) standards Visa has been a part of, and can "reduce costs, improve time to market, and enhance application productivity for chip cards with multiple applications."

Schlumberger's version, Cyberflex, "will enable thousands of programmers to create new smart card programs," said Jim Davis, head of the French company's U.S. smart cards and systems division. Applications could include credit, ATM, and stored-value card functions, frequent-flier points, and subscriber identification for mobile phones.

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