Sun Microsystems Inc. last week took its Java card specification to the next level, and major smart card manufacturers scrambled to show they had gotten with the program.
Sun, owner of the trendy, Internet-oriented Java programming language, made the Java Card Application Programming Interface 2.0 available for downloading from the World Wide Web.
In short order, Gemplus Group and Schlumberger Ltd.'s electronic transactions division, the chip card producers most closely identified with the Java initiative, had related announcements of their own.
They left an impression that Java has lost no momentum in the year since these companies began rallying around the initial Java Card API. It has more than held its own amid a raging debate between Visa International, an early Java enthusiast, and MasterCard International's Mondex program, which adheres to its own operating system while saying it is open to moving to Java in the future.
Among endorsers of the 2.0 version, in addition to Gemplus, Schlumberger, and Visa, are chip and card producers Bull, Giesecke & Devrient, Hitachi, Motorola, and Toshiba, and financial and payment organizations Citicorp, First Union Corp., and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Verifone subsidiary.
"Java Card 2.0 is the catalyst that will launch the widespread use of multi-function smart cards worldwide," said Alan Baratz, president of Sun's JavaSoft division.
The language is the basis for system programming and for easily transportable little programs, or applets, that can reside anywhere from mainframe computers to the tiniest of portable chip devices, regardless of the underlying operating system. Sun's motto for Java is that a program can be "written once to run anywhere."
The API specification is designed to unleash the power of Java in the confined memory spaces of chips embedded into plastic cards, with at least 16 kilobytes of read-only memory, 8 kilobytes of electronically erasable, programmable read-only memory, and 256 bytes of random access memory.
Pointing to the powerful remote programming capability, which banks could use to deliver new applications or update cards' chips "on the fly" over phone lines, Mr. Baratz said, "the smart card industry can provide the consumer with a card that can store money as easily as it can track frequent-flier miles or provide secure access to a cellular phone."
Gemplus and Schlumberger, in their home country of France for the annual Cartes '97 conference, used the occasion to trumpet some Java Card firsts.
Still riding the novelty of its six-month-old Cyberflex product, regarded as the first Java-compatible card on the market and winner of the "Best Innovation" award at Cartes '97, Schlumberger announced Cyberflex 2.0 Core. A product of its Austin, Tex., development center, the 2.0 version grew out of lessons learned from Cyberflex 1.0, with multiple application capability and a 20% increase in rewritable memory capacity.
Visa said it will use Cyberflex in developing its Open Platform smart cards, which will take advantage of the multi-application capability beginning with banking functions such as debit, credit, and stored value.
"The smart card industry is moving rapidly toward a multiple application environment," said Jacques Cosnefroy, vice president and general manager of Schlumberger smart cards. "The Open Platform takes advantage of Java Card technology and brings secure and efficient multi-application loading to a smart card."
Francois Dutray, Visa International executive vice president and smart card point man, praised Schlumberger for contributing to the rapid establishment of the Java Card API and said it will draw on the company's expertise for the Visa Open Platform Specification 1.0.
Gemplus announced early 1998 availability of GemXpresso, the first Java Card 2.0 system implemented on a 32-bit RISC, or reduced instruction-set computing, processor. Its processing speed will lend itself to the additional services and applications being built into smart card chips, which have been limited to 8-bit microprocessors.
"Gemplus is now in position to offer powerful, multi-application smart card systems that make the business case for the technology all the more compelling," said Dominique Trempont, president of Gemplus Americas.
Mr. Dutray of Visa said the related GemXpresso RAD-rapid applet development-tools "should accelerate the market adoption of multifunction cards and attract a pool of software developers to build Java Card applications for our banks."
Gemplus also announced GPK4000, touted as the first smart card combining digital signatures, on-board encryption key generation, electronic payments, and other functions. The security technology comes from RSA Data Security Inc. and will be built into ImagineCard 2.0, a joint development of Gemplus, Informix Software, and Hewlett-Packard.