Microcard Technologies Corp., the oldest and by some measures most prominent of the French-owned smart card companies, has also been the quietest in the United States.

"We've been sort of a silent front-runner," said Gerald Hubbard, vice president of marketing.

He hinted in an interview that this may begin to change, and Microcard, owned by the Bull Group's CP8 division, has plenty to talk about.

"The fact is we have 90% to 95% of the microprocessor card applications (in the United States) and 65% worldwide," said Mr. Hubbard, who has gained some personal prominence as treasurer of the Smart Card Forum. That is one of four elected positions on the board of the forum, an interindustry interest group that has grown to more than 160 members in less than two years.

Bull and Microcard have maintained their quiet edge as prominent rivals Gemplus Group and Schlumberger openly jockey for position in the young but potentially lucrative North American market. Schlumberger roiled the waters three weeks ago by acquiring Malco Inc., the biggest producer of plastic payment cards for the U.S. market, which still relies on the magnetic- stripe encoding standard. (See page 16.)

These invading French pioneers are not alone. Also establishing outposts or alliances here are Germany's Giesecke & Devrient and Orga, and Solaic of France.

Gemplus, which is less than seven years old, has surged to the lead in overall chip card manufacturing, with 103 million produced in 1993 and about 150 million in 1994. But reflecting the market as a whole, most of Gemplus' cards are "memory only," lacking the microprocessor power that distinguishes the true smart cards.

Most of Bull CP8's production - about three-fourths of 15 million units in 1993, according to Smart Card Monthly - was smart cards, a category in which Bull claims to be No. 1.

Bull's chip-card heritage dates back almost to the 1970s-era invention. It controls several key patents, including the crucial one for SPOM - short for self-programmable one-chip microcomputer. Bull thus collects licensing fees from its rivals; it has more than 50 such contracts in force.

With encouragement from the French government, Bull was in the forefront of the first international chip-card marketing wave 15 years ago. It set up Microcard in Dallas in 1984 and opened the manufacturing plant there in 1986. The U.S. unit's headquarters moved recently to Vienna, Va., under president Arnaud d'Avezac.

The company boilerplate says more than 90% of all bank smart cards are Bull CP8s, and almost 80% of all smart cards use the CP8 operating system.

As a well-established part of one of the world's biggest computer companies, and with more than 1,000 people devoted to the smart card business, Bull CP8 more resembles Schlumberger than the upstart Gemplus.

Mr. Hubbard suggested that while his competitors are doing a lot of talking, Bull has concentrated on maintaining leadership.

The Schlumberger-Malco transaction was more than talk, but Mr. Hubbard pointed out that Malco will have to retool to become the force in chip-card manufacturing that it is in magnetic stripe cards.

Bull, through Microcard, retains the production facility in Dallas, which if below capacity has still kept busy supplying cards for a debit card system at two Marine bases, the Citibank screen phone for home banking, and a Royal Bank of Canada cash management program.

Microcard users also include the U.S. Department of Agriculture's peanut quota program. At 200,000 cards and 1,700 terminals, it is the largest smart card system in the U.S.

"We have issued more than 100,000 electronic purse cards for Banksys in Belgium, which I believe is the largest electronic purse application in the world," Mr. Hubbard said. Programs like EPS (Electronic Payment Services Inc.) in the United States and Mondex in the United Kingdom get all the publicity, but they aren't even up and running."

Like its rivals, Bull CP8 has its sights on emerging opportunities. It recently announced an alliance with Racom Systems of Colorado to combine the SPOM standard with Racom's contactless technology. They could adapt smart cards for high-volume mass transit applications.

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