Visa International called the vendor community to San Francisco last week to clarify its strategies on chip cards, the Internet, and electronic commerce.
More than 120 people from 88 companies came from around the world for the two-day session and heard the latest on Visa's Partner Program, which the association has held up as a competitive response to MasterCard's Mondex smart card venture.
Visa has been arguing that Mondex, typical of many such programs in their early stages, is a closed and proprietary system that is not flexible enough to adapt to future demands. Mondex has responded with equal force that its Multos multiple-application operating system is designed for the long haul.
Since March, Visa has described its alternative strategy as that of an "enabler," helping member banks to get into smart card programs at their own pace. Visa has embraced the Java computing language, saying it is inherently flexible and ideally suited to changing products and programs "on the fly."
"We are serving the banks, we are not developing a product for them," said Francois Dutray, group executive vice president of emerging products for Visa International, and one of the conference hosts. "The banks will create their own products on the chip, and they will have the flexibility to associate different functions on one chip."
"The trust that Visa and the associations have created in the physical world, we are able to bring into the virtual world," Mr. Dutray added. "This will be an important factor in giving consumers the confidence to converse on the Internet."
Experts generally agree that the two associations' approaches, if not philosophies, are similar, and they view Mondex, a seven-year-old venture, now 51% owned by MasterCard International, as out in front.
"Mondex is one step ahead of Visa," said David E. Weisman, director of money and technology strategies at Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass. "Mondex has a broader understanding of where it wants to take the card, and its partner strategy is a bit stronger."
Mondex envisions smart cards as devices for loyalty programs, security and user authentication, and payments, Mr. Weisman said. Visa's efforts to date have been focused on the stored-value function, Visa Cash.
Jerome Svigals, a consultant and smart card advocate based in Redwood City, Calif., has been highly critical of Visa's strategy, saying it reflects a desperate effort to slow or derail Mondex.
"Visa has to do something to keep the banks' attention," Mr. Svigals said. "They have lost all of Canada" to Mondex, he said, referring to the fact that Canada's major banks have joined that program.
"The current magnetic stripe card is a multiple-function-and-application card," the consultant added. "It is usable in all locations that will accept smart cards. The cross-industry uses will be the same. Why the reluctance to use smart cards?"
Visa says 146 banks around the world are affiliated with its Partner Program. Far more Visa Cash cards have been issued than Mondex cards, but many, unlike Mondex, are elementary disposable cash cards.
Darrell M. Barnes, European marketing director for De La Rue Card Systems, a Paris-based unit of De La Rue PLC of Britain, and a manufacturer of smart cards and systems, said banks' reluctance to embrace smart cards is holding the technology back.
"The card associations are at the center of the thinking and of providing these solutions," said Mr. Barnes, who attended the Visa conference. "Intellectually, the banks are miles behind."
Mr. Barnes added that when he asks bankers what they would like to see in the products, they respond, "Come back in 18 months and I might be able to give you some idea."
"Many of them haven't got a clue," he said. But he predicted Visa's Partner Program would prevail over Mondex.
"Visa has got the global marketing edge over MasterCard," he said. "Couple that with their open approach, and I think we'll see Visa succeed, certainly at a faster rate than Mondex."