Very likely, phones, TVs, and PCs will all come into play as Americans use smart cards and their associated technology
Picture a locked house without keys.
To gain entry, you swipe a plastic card through a reader mounted next to the door. You say a few words to let the voice recognition technology identify you, then it lets you in.
Indoors, you swipe the card into a reader on the telephone, dial in to your bank, pull up your personal transaction records, and download several hundred dollars of value onto the card.
Later, you use the card to order "Batman Forever" on the TV screen. You pay for it with some of the value on the card. While waiting for the movie to start, you log on to the Internet, stroll through a virtual florist's shop, and have flowers sent by express to your mother for her birthday - also paid for by debiting the card.
This smart card future is just around the corner. Some experts say the telephone will be the communications and information mechanism. Others lean toward the television set or personal computer. Very likely, all three will come into play as Americans download value, gain access to services, and buy products using smart cards and their associated technology.
Aside from their memory capacity and security features, smart cards excite bankers for an overriding reason: their shape. The functions described above don't require a card; the access device could just as easily be shaped like a key. But bankers have established a plastic connection to their customers that, they believe, can only be enhanced by the powerful, embedded chip.
Smart cards' ability to store value can offer what amounts to an automated teller machine in the home, with access to a full array of products and services.
For example, some Citibank customers already have the option of paying bills electronically using a screen phone. They can also review account activity, transfer funds, and send messages to customer service. Users of the phones made by Philips Home Services can also look up phone numbers through the National Electronic Directory, and many other interactive services can be added.
"Loading value onto the cards is the most important piece of this discussion, and I envision it happening within two to three years," said William M. Randle, senior vice president and director of marketing and strategic planning at Huntington Bancshares Inc., Columbus, Ohio.
"As we deemphasize physical distribution through branches, banks must have the capability and expertise to maintain and foster a customer relationship, whether it be through the Internet or via the chip on a card," Mr. Randle said. "Then when it comes to chips, we have to ask, 'Who will be in the middle of the transaction? Will it be the bank or will it be someone else?' "
Competitive challenges are coming from all directions. Mr. Randle and others warn that MCI, AT&T, Microsoft, and Intuit are all capable of coming between a bank and its customer by creating an attractive computer interface and "retailing" any number of products and services directly into the home.
A consumer could browse loan options as if shopping for a suit or a book. The bank becomes nothing more than what Mr. Randle, quoting a bank analyst, calls a "money mortuary," a place where funds merely wait for transfer orders.
Huntington is one bank that has gone "virtual" through a direct bank that provides services only via telephone and ATM. Huntington has also invested in a bank for the Internet developed by Cardinal Bancshares of Lexington, Ky.
"Customers want to be able to retrieve financial information and value on their terms - when they want and how they want - without any boundaries of time or space," said Mr. Randle. "With a smart terminal, the home is an important access point. But the home is just part of the total picture."
"People say smart cards will be in the home, and they will be," said Tom Murphy, a consultant at Global Concepts Inc. in Atlanta, "but there are so many other variables to consider, like merchant acceptance."
Mr. Murphy predicted an eventual convergence of smart cards with the Internet:
"First, merchants will have to embrace the technology. Second, consumers will get used to the convenience of smart cards at places like gas stations. Third, consumers will expect that they can put funds on their cards at ATMs or other established places they can get cash. Fourth, they will get used to putting funds on their cards at home. Fifth, consumers will access the Internet and use the smart card to pay for products and services on line."
The card may be a constant, but a debate still rages about phones versus screen phones versus personal computers.
"Consumers will use a combination of devices, and each device will play to its particular strength," said Matthew Lawlor, chief executive officer of Online Resources & Communications Corp., a McLean, Va., screen phone provider and service bureau for home transactions of all kinds.
"PCs are suited for analysis, electronic mail, and investing," Mr. Lawlor said. "If all a consumer wants to do is make a financial transaction and not manipulate data, screen phones are ideal. Television will play to its strengths in home shopping and entertainment."
"Over the next two to three years, I think the screen phone and the PC is going to overpower anything the television might have to offer," said Mr. Randle.
"I don't know why anyone would buy another box to sit on their TV and turn the TV into a low-end screen phone," he said. "I tend to think that appliances like smart phones will have transactional capabilities built into them, and already PCs come with phone systems. In addition, today you can buy a TV card for your PC for about $250.
"The consumer is going to drive these decisions."
Banks are not alone, and may not even be the leaders, in taking advantage of new levels of interactivity.
QVC, the television shopping channel, for example, logs more than 60 million calls a year, ships more than 40 million packages, and sells more than $1.5 billion of merchandise. It hasn't yet inaugurated a smart card but has introduced a "smart agent" that will alert computer users via modem to items that might appeal to them.
Plans are in the works for an Internet version of QVC, as there are for the competing Home Shopping Network.
Companies like The Box, a Miami Beach-based interactive video music channel, also stand to benefit from smart cards. Launched by Les Garland, a founder of MTV, The Box lets viewers select their own video plays with a credit card number. A smart card, perhaps combined with a smart phone, could further personalize the consumer's decision-making by showing catalogues of song titles or actual clips from videos.
Students will be able to use smart cards with educational programming via the Internet or interactive television. Experts say parents will soon have the option of encrypting the smart card to limit their children's access to certain products and services available over the net, by telephone, or on television.
The keynote, for banking and other services, is customization; chip technology makes it possible - and essential.
Deidre Sullivan is a freelance writer based in New York.