A French company is promoting a new reason for buying into smart cards- customer satisfaction-and offering a product to provide some.

"Smart cards are not being implemented for users," said Jean-Philippe Michel, commercial director of Sevres-based Xiring, an eight-month old venture of Bull Group and Info Realite.

They tend to be viewed as a way to help banks and retailers deter fraud, save money, or develop revenue-generating applications, Mr. Michel said. But they cost consumers no less than magnetic stripe cards and do not offer improved payment schedules, loyalty programs, or other new services, he said.

One way to encourage the use of smart cards is to provide immediate easy access to the information they contain, Mr. Michel said. And his company offers that.

Xiring sells handheld personal card readers for $3 to $4 each. Consumers can use them to see their balances without having to go to a checkout lane or turnstile.

All future services related to smart cards will be concentrated on such card readers, Mr. Michel declared. Already Xiring has sold 3.5 million of them, he said.

He spoke at the recent Tecnobanca conference sponsored in Mexico City by American Banker and the magazine publisher InfoBanca,

Other speakers at the conference advocated multiple applications on cards as the key to profitability. But there are problems with that approach, said Philippe Vinci, regional director, Latin America, for Bull Information Systems.

Which service provider should issue the card and put its logo on it remains unclear, he said. Who reissues the card if it gets lost? How are expiration dates coordinated among the various providers? Perhaps most important, who "owns" the customer?

Mr. Michel said he does not expect multiple-application smart cards to be widespread in his lifetime. Rather, he said, Xiring readers will be customized to suit the varied purposes of a wide swath of users.

One European bank, for example, offers readers that interpret five cards, including its own bank card, the national phone card, and cards issued in nearby countries.

"Customers can access all the information on their cards and bring them to life," he said.

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