Fischer International Systems Corp. has a way for banks to use personal computers to read smart cards without waiting for PC manufacturers to add special readers.

The Naples, Fla., company developed the Smarty, a smart card reader in the form of a floppy disk. The device can help banks with network security and other smart card applications, Fischer says.

The user slips a smart card into a slot on the Smarty, then slips the device into a computer's ordinary floppy disk drive.

The Smarty translates the information on the card's chip into a magnetic signal that the floppy drive can read. In addition, the Smarty can write new information on the card, under the computer's direction.

"The attractions of a smart card are not only for computer-based banking applications, but also for security applications within a banking environment," said Paul Pieske, Fischer International's director of smart disk marketing.

Jerome Svigals, an electronic banking consultant based in Redwood City, Calif., said using the device to prevent unauthorized people from using a PC "seems very practical."

"The PC is a very exposed device in the banking industry, and anything that can enhance the security operation is exceptionally important," he said.

Smart card security applications are expected to become a $185 million market by 2000, according to the Freedonia Group Inc., an electronic commerce analyst firm in Cleveland.

For handling smart card transactions, this device is "slightly more awkward than just putting a smart card into a conventional smart card reader," Mr. Svigals said. But Fischer International is marketing the Smarty as a transitional step until smart card readers become ubiquitous.

The company also expects its pricing to give it a competitive edge.

"In the past, if you wanted a smart card reader for your PC, there are solutions out there like PCMCIA cards that run anywhere from $150 to $400," Mr. Pieske said.

By selling its solution for about $60, Fischer International hopes to "open up the market and allow the adoption of this technology," he added.

Two commercial banks are testing Fischer International's technology. Wells Fargo is using the Smarty in several pilot programs, including an Internet banking application and in its test of Mondex, the stored-value card system that permits Internet transactions.

Bank of America is developing a smart card that combines security as well as commercial applications, Mr. Pieske said. Besides serving as computer and network security tokens, the bank's smart cards will be used by employees as Visa Cash cards as well as to provide access to the bank's facilities.

Such multi-application capability is seen as necessary for the widespread adoption of smart card technology. "Otherwise, we're all going to be walking around with 15 cards," Mr. Pieske said. "It kind of defeats the purpose."

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