MasterCard International and its Mondex smart card affiliate have laid out a technology strategy that they describe as more complete and advanced than what Visa or any other competitor offers.
With support from several technology vendors, MasterCard and Mondex announced a multiple-application operating system, brand-name Multos, that will allow a single card to be used for as many functions as a bank and its customer desire.
The announcement covered much of the ground Visa International did with its own technology salvo in March, which stole some thunder from MasterCard's recently acquired Mondex venture.
But Mondex clearly set out Thursday to demolish any claim by Visa that it had found a way around the fact that Mondex had been building its technology advantage since about 1990, long before electronic cash became a common industry pursuit.
Visa International's rejoinder, from group executive vice president Francois Dutray, was that Mondex remains "operating-system-centric" and needs to be more strongly committed to open standards.
Mondex bent slightly in Visa's direction-saying it is prepared to support the Java programming language that was central to Visa's approach- but officials bristled at the suggestion they are too "proprietary."
They plan to publish Multos specifications in the third quarter "on a nonproprietary, open-systems basis that can be applied across industries," said Michael Keegan, chief executive officer of London-based Mondex International.
"We have been working on Multos a number of years, and we believe it is strong and flexible enough to be a de facto industry standard," Mr. Keegan said.
Visa, he said, addressed just one component in the Mondex package: an application programming interface.
Mondex also brings in the integrated-circuit hardware and underlying operating system. All are to be managed and governed according to "open system" principles by a consortium called MAOSCO Ltd.
The consortium's charter members are: MasterCard, which formally endorsed Multos as its platform for chip cards; Mondex; silicon chip manufacturers Hitachi, Motorola, and Siemens; Dai Nippon Printing Co. of Japan; the leading smart card producer Gemplus; and Keycorp, an Australian payment terminal manufacturer.
Siemens and Gemplus were also on the vendor list in Visa's March 25 strategy announcement, which it called the Partner Program. Visa described itself as an "enabler" for member institutions to be as elementary or advanced as they choose in using the technology.
Visa caused a stir with its choice of Java, the computing language from Sun Microsystems Inc. that is well suited to delivering program changes over networks rather than by reissuing cards. Mr. Dutray at Visa said he felt vindicated when Mondex-Multos said it will be ready for Java: "Our approach has been endorsed. We are on the right track."
But for Mondex, which has Sun Microsystems' support even though that vendor is not in MAOSCO, Java is a secondary, longer-term aspect. To "get to market quicker," Mr. Keegan said, Mondex is immediately focused on the Multos Executable Language, or Mel, and the "C" language that is in widespread programming use.
Multos is in lab testing in Japan; commercial availability is scheduled for the first quarter of 1998. It will come too late for the New York City trial this fall in which Mondex and Visa Cash will be put to an interoperability test.
Once Multos is deployed, cards will not have to be reissued to be enhanced or upgraded. Services can be added or deleted "in real time through the telephone, an automated teller machine, or across the Internet," said Henry Mundt, the MasterCard executive vice president who oversees Mondex.
"Members can count on a single and stable technology platform for many years to come," said Richard Phillimore, senior vice president of MasterCard's chip business unit, based in Purchase, N.Y. "The degree of flexibility will allow targeting of card products to individual consumers ... Our customers know their customers better than we do, and one size doesn't fit all."
He added that there is "a huge market for this operating system across industries, not just for payments." But Mondex officials did not divulge the potential nonbanking users they are talking to.
Outside experts said MasterCard and Mondex moved the ball forward. Dan Cunningham of Phoenix Planning & Evaluation Ltd., Rockville, Md., saw Multos as similar to GSM-a mobile phone standard that allows for maximum product differentiation. "I think it gives MasterCard a clear lead" in the standards race, he said.
"Lovely," said Jerome Svigals, a California-based consultant. "Visa may be right about Mondex in retrospect, but Mondex is clearly on the right migration path."