Smart card advocates envision the day when one card with a computer chip inside replaces all the plastic in consumers' wallets.
But with so many service choices and options - debit, credit, prepaid,low rate, rebate, frequent flier, car rental, health insurance - can businesses and consumers cut through the confusion to bring the hype to reality?
At a recent international conference on smart cards, several enthusiasts joined in the clarion call for a multi-application card.
"I expect in 10 years to have replaced everything now in my wallet with one TD Bank smart card," J. David Livingston, senior vice president of Toronto Dominion Bank in Canada, told the Cardtech/Securtech conference in Washington.
But Frederick J. Honold, vice president of AT&T Smart Cards Systems and Solutions, said, "The idea of one card is theoretically doable, but not practical."
The technology, based on a computer chip embedded in a plastic card, is certainly capable of storing enough information to perform multiple applications. And the migration toward the chip is well under way, led by a cooperative standardization effort by the Europay, MasterCard, and Visa card organizations and numerous tests of stored value, or electronic purse, services around the world.
Yet smart card experts acknowledge a number of stumbling blocks.
"I don't believe there will be one ubiquitous smart card that will cover everything you have in your purse," said Robin Townend, senior vice president of chip technology at MasterCard International. "If you lose it, you've lost everything."
He did say consumers will be able to carry fewer cards, each providing more than one function.
"One card will be a reality, but not for everyone," said Catherine Allen, a Citicorp vice president who is also chairman of the Smart Card Forum, a multi-industry group supporting the technology. "We don't want to dictate," she added. "We want to use the technology to empower the consumer."
Ms. Allen pointed out that younger consumers or those seeking extra convenience would be more apt to use multi-application cards in the future, but others would stick with one or two applications on each of their cards.
"The more you go to multi-applications, the more confusion and complexity there will be," she said. "There are lots of business issues that haven't been ironed out."
Mr. Townend said one card with several applications might confuse consumers at the point of sale. He wondered who would control the data on the card when medical insurance, calling card, and frequent-flier services coexist. He also raised security issues like viruses that could compromise banking information if the cards could be updated by any of several service providers.
Privacy issues also crop up, said Donald Gleason, president of EPS Smart Card Enterprise, a business unit of Electronic Payment Services Inc. EPS, the owner of the MAC automated teller network, plans to begin an open smart card trial in its home state of Delaware early next year.
Many consumers would not entrust medical data to the same card that carries their banking information, he said. Regulatory issues may arise when it comes to piling multiple functions onto one card, he added.
"There's a vast difference with what can be done with technology versus the market opportunity," Mr. Gleason said.
Edmund P. Jensen, president and chief executive officer of Visa International, has said consumers already see their bank card as "the key to all the data they might need or desire in the information age." But Mr. Gleason maintains that bringing that concept to fruition, encompassing the many potential applications, will require a massive education effort at the merchant, consumer, and bank levels.
Industry competition could be another bump in the road to the comprehensive card. While smart cards are heralded as a vehicle for forging a relationship with customers, easing the card pricing wars, and bringing service back to the forefront, consumers will still be conditioned to shop for the best deals.
Could consumers own a bank card containing both a low-rate Visa and a cobranded MasterCard account? Industry experts say no.
Jerome Svigals, an electronic banking consultant in Redwood City, Calif., pointed out there are rules preventing Visa and MasterCard from appearing on the same card.
Mr. Svigals, who was involved in the development of magnetic stripe technology and became an early advocate of the chip-based alternative, said one card can satisfy all consumer needs. In the future, people "may be able to get a Wachovia Bank product on a Chemical checking account card" from a third-party issuer.
He said nonbanks capable of offering consumers a range of choices will take the lead in issuing multi-application cards.
Banks "think they're kings now, but tomorrow they'll be pawns," Mr. Svigals said.
Scott P. Marks, executive vice president of First Chicago Corp., disagreed. "Banks, through the Visa and MasterCard associations, will maintain their lead in plastic."
But he said the business case for the chip would have to be strong enough to justify a substantial investment in new technology at the point of sale. Ultimately, he said, consumers would be the ones to make the choice.
Jean McKenna, vice president of technology development at Visa International and vice chairman of the Smart Card Forum, said multifunction cards are "a ways down the road." The infrastructure first must be in place within and across the card associations and the terminal and card- production industries.
"What's happening right now, as with all new things, people are identifying the best way of offering services," said Ms. McKenna. "The hype and interest is good. It makes people think of possibilities, but market forces will shake out" to determine what eventually takes hold.
"I'd like to see an arrangement with various key players across industry sectors so consumers can pick and choose" what functions they'd like on their smart cards, said Mr. Townend.
Mr. Honold envisioned banks as "your favorite shopping mall" offering "any number of applications that let me lead my life."
In the future, consumers could insert their smart cards into home computers or screen phones and select features they want to load onto the card, whether it be a frequent-flier program, a car rental service, or life insurance.
Mr. Svigals said these companies could pay "rent" to appear on the card, creating a source of revenue for the issuer.
However it turns out, Mr. Gleason said, "there is a strong business case" for implementing smart cards.
"The major drivers (of smart card technology) going forward," he said, "will be the financial services industry, the telecommunications industry, and government."