Though they may have been overshadowed by MasterCard's bold move to buy control of Mondex, Visa's smart card trials are more numerous and making waves of their own.
Even as it hitched its strategy to the Java Card standard, which poses a technical if not strategic challenge to the Mondex method of linking cards with the Internet, Visa International did not abandon Visa Cash, its flagship stored-value brand.
"We realize Visa Cash is only a first step," said Diana Knox, Visa U.S.A's manager for stored value and chip products. "The real interest of U.S. members is multifunctions and all the enhancements chip can bring to debit and credit cards."
Ms. Knox said stored value is "one of many applications members will choose to put on a card." With Java as a base, each financial institution will be able to customize, adding loyalty programs, personal information storage, and more.
But Java-based ideas are only beginning to take shape. Further along are 25 Visa Cash projects in various stages in 16 countries.
As of February, 15,000 terminals worldwide accepted Visa Cash, 3.7 million cards had been issued, and 1.9 million transactions completed, worth a total of $8.5 million. More than 60 financial institutions were participating in Visa Cash trials.
The first launch of Visa Cash, in May 1995, was in Australia, with five banks, 100,000 cards, and nearly 300 terminals.
That was a prelude to the biggest publicity splash to date, at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Though terminals are still in place around Atlanta, the multimillion-card program is largely dormant. Many retailers dropped out, though the rapid transit system remains popular among die-hard smart card users.
In the fall, New York's Upper West Side will become the second U.S. Visa Cash site, in a joint Visa-MasterCard experiment with a planned 50,000 cards.
Hong Kong residents are especially taken with the technology, as both Visa and Mondex have learned. Visa's test began in July 1996 and by January encompassed 1,000 terminals and 100,000 cards.
Other projects are under way in Argentina, Colombia, and Brazil. In France, chip cards are about to be integrated with the Secure Electronic Transactions standard for Internet payments. A major launch in Britain and others in Taiwan, Norway, and Sydney, Australia, were slated for this year.
Japan will be a major showcase for Internet payments and stored value. Over the next year, 100,000 cards will be issued for a large-scale "open system" trial in Tokyo's Shibuya district.
When he announced the Java development approach, called the Partner Program, in March, Visa International group executive vice president Francois Dutray sounded exasperated that Visa had not gotten more recognition for its chip and SET advances. "Mondex makes a big deal about what they will do, but I have shown Visa Cash on the Internet," he said. "We can do micropayments on the Internet today."