International Business Machines Corp., Netscape Communications Corp., Network Computer Inc., and Sun Microsystems Inc. have joined forces to develop a standard for using smart cards with network computers.
The standard, called the OpenCard Framework, would serve as a technical guideline ensuring that cards would be compatible with any of the scaled back, "thin client" computing devices that rely on network connections for most of their functions and power.
The effort could add to the momentum behind smart cards, particularly as corporate and network security tools.
Other consortia are promoting standards for chip card readers attached to personal computers and for software based on the Java language, which was sponsored by Sun Microsystems.
The OpenCard organizations share a vision of network computers becoming omnipresent-in homes, offices, and public places like airports and hotel rooms. Smart cards with their computer memories could become system keys and security tokens functionally similar to conventional bank cards with automated teller machines.
"This common standard will give network computer users the ability to travel anywhere in the world and still access all their personal data and services from the network," said Bonnie Crater, vice president of strategic marketing at Network Computer Inc., a subsidiary of Oracle Corp.
The plan sounds interesting but "at the moment, it's hype," said Gareth Herschel, a research associate with the Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn. "The interest we're seeing in smart cards right now is within the corporate environment."
"The smart card can play potentially large roles inside corporations," said Eric Greenberg, group security product manager at Netscape. There are already pilots under way using the smart card as a security measure, he added.
The OpenCard Framework builds on the Network Computer Reference Profile announced last May. Commonly referred to as the NCRP, it was designed to ensure compatibility in the network computing market.
With their latest announcement, the companies have decided to support PKCS 11, an existing public-key cryptography standard, and established separate application programming interfaces for Java and non-Java smart cards to work with network computers.
Following the security standard will allow "for a person's digital identity, their Internet driver's license, if you will, to be stored securely on the card," Mr. Greenberg said.
The non-Java interface was created "to ensure backward capability," Ms. Crater said.
"The reason that they've done that is to cover their bets" until it is clear how successful Java will become on smart cards, Mr. Herschel said.
The OpenCard consortium does not foresee any compatibility problems with PC-smart card initiatives being pursued by Microsoft Corp. along with companies such as Schlumberger Electronic Transactions and Hewlett-Packard Co.
But inasmuch as Microsoft and the Sun-Oracle-Netscape camp often are at odds, industry observers wonder if a standards war will break out somewhere down the line.
Netscape said version 4.0 of its Communicator product will support the PKCS 11 part of the OpenCard Framework, available in the second quarter. Network Computer Inc. intends to include the standard in its product line before the end of the year.
Both Sun and IBM plan to incorporate smart card technology in network computers by yearend.