Several companies active in the European electronic commerce market have formed yet another consortium to promote and standardize wireless transactions, yet again with backing from smart card companies.

The latest group, centered in Germany, has been dubbed the e-Sign Consortium and is focused on extending digital signature technology to mobile communications devices.

Digital signatures, an application of data encryption technology to prevent tampering with and assure authenticity of electronic transactions, have been legally mandated in Germany. Signature laws are an international trend; such a law came close to enactment this year by the U.S. Congress. This and other mobile commerce consortiums could thus be in a position to influence how wireless security is taken up elsewhere.

The e-Sign effort, announced last week, will proceed in parallel with other fast-moving standards developments such as the Wireless Application Protocol, currently subscribed to by the nearly 300-member WAP Forum; and Radicchio, which several mobile telephone industry players started in September to promote the cryptographic framework known as PKI, or public key infrastructure, for hand-held communications devices.

These bodies have overlapping memberships, and smart card producers are a common denominator. Gemplus, which was a Radicchio founder, and Schlumberger are both charter members of the e-Sign Consortium.

The other Radicchio founders - Sonera SmartTrust of Finland and Electronic Data Systems Corp. - were joined in short order by the Swedish telecommunications giant and cell phone maker Ericsson and, according to an announcement last week, by eight others including the Finnish smart card innovator Setec and Canadian software companies Certicom Corp. and 724 Solutions Inc.

Many of these organizations have also been drawn to Bluetooth, defined as a "wireless connectivity standard." This effort is led by the Bluetooth SIG, or Special Interest Group, which includes Ericsson, Nokia of Finland, and International Business Machines Corp.; and by a "promoter" group to which the founders recently admitted 3Com Corp., Lucent Technologies, Microsoft Corp., and Motorola Inc.

In November, Ericsson introduced the first Bluetooth product, a wireless headset for a cellular phone. Visa International at the same time announced an agreement with Ericsson to explore the use of Bluetooth in payment transactions, such as downloading electronic cash from a cell phone to a vending machine. Bluetooth is the most popular wireless specification of all, with 1,200 members signing on since May 1998.

Smart card vendors are key role players in the digital cellular field, specifically relating to GSM, the Global System for Mobile communications standard that governs the European wireless market and is spreading rapidly elsewhere.

Aside from their transactional capabilities, smart card providers offer expertise and experience in producing subscriber identity modules, or SIMs, for GSM devices. SIMs, which authenticate the customer, are often smart cards or modified versions of them that can be inserted into a wireless handset, and Gemplus of France claims to be the top producer.

Schlumberger, like other chip card vendors, has made a series of announcements indicating its intent to be a leading provider of SIMs and related security products.

The e-Sign Consortium otherwise has a largely German cast, though "other national and international companies will join soon," said a statement released by one of the leaders, Brokat Infosystems of Stuttgart.

Brokat is a growing international force in the on-line banking and e-commerce systems market, best known for the Twister software platform that has been designed to include mobile connectivity among many delivery-system options. Brokat said that e-Sign's aim is "to develop a uniform application interface as the de facto standard for the integration of the mobile phone into the Internet world and to use the mobile phone for implementing mobile digital signatures."

Jozsef Bugovics, the Brokat executive vice president responsible for mobile commerce, said one German out of four already has a mobile phone. He said this device "will be the e-business enabler of the near future," thereby making "the use of the phone as a signing device a logical conclusion."

According to the introductory statement last week, the legally binding digital signature opens the way for a mobile phone number to be as secure as - and to potentially replace - a credit card number for payment. "The application interface will facilitate standardized communication between customers and retailers, providers of financial services, lotteries, and other e-commerce providers on the Internet," it added.

Besides Brokat, Gemplus, and Schlumberger, the e-Sign members are mobile communications operators E-Plus Mobilfunk, Mannesmann Mobilfunk, and VIAG Interkom; Siemens Communication Devices, which makes GSM handsets and other equipment; T-Telesec Trust Center, a unit of Deutsche Telekom; and Cryptovision, which promotes the elliptic curve cryptography, or ECC, method of encryption.

ECC is also the product of Certicom Corp. of Toronto, one of the new Radicchio members. The other Canadian entry, 724 Solutions, develops wireless financial services systems. Its customers include Bank of Montreal and Bank of America.

Also joining Radicchio are Geoworks Corp. of Alameda, Calif., the digital certificate company InterClear Service Ltd. of the United Kingdom, Swiss systems organizations Minick AG and Mobile Solutions AG, Setec of Finland, and Infineon Technologies, which was formerly Siemens Semiconductors.

"Trust and security must be addressed urgently" if the mobile-Internet promise is to be realized, said InterClear managing director Bob Carter. "Business and consumer confidence in these systems depends on practical digital signature implementations, the importance of which is increased by imminent U.K. and European Union digital signature legislation and by best-practice standards," he said.

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