In one of its more overt shows of support for smart cards, Microsoft Corp. announced a plan to put a stamp of approval on card readers compatible with its technology.

The software giant is offering to put smart card devices-typically those attached to personal computers and keyboards-through a series of compatibility tests.

The testing unit, the Windows Hardware Quality Laboratory, would then authorize placement of its logo on the devices, an endorsement that should carry some weight because of Microsoft's market presence.

Microsoft, which unveiled the initiative at the annual Cardtech/Securtech conference, had previously indicated a considerable interest in chip cards. The company has been writing smart card compatibility into recent versions of its operating system and Internet software, and details of its interfaces have been published on the Microsoft Web site.

The company's chairman and chief executive officer, Bill Gates, has also spoken publicly in favor of computer chips in cards, particularly as a means of transaction security and cardholder authenticity.

Though some banking industry observers have been anticipating a bold move to issue cards and perhaps challenge financial institutions with a payment service, the logo announcement is in keeping with Microsoft's officially stated aim of promoting the underlying technology.

The logo program enables vendors "to take advantage of the smart card support in the Windows and Windows NT version 5.0 operating systems for user log-in as well as remote access," said a Microsoft press release.

It "benefits our hardware partners as well as our customers because it provides a high level of assurance of compatibility for users of Windows NT 5.0," said David Thompson, Microsoft's director of development.

Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft has joined with other computer, software, and chip card companies in the PC/SC Work group to set standards for smart card input devices attached to PCs. The aim of that group is to promote interoperability across various system and hardware approaches. Some of the group's members are supporting the Microsoft logo program, which has the same aim. (See related article on page 13.)

"We are agnostic about smart cards," Philippe Goetschel, director of Microsoft's smart card group, said Monday. "We want to make sure every smart card operating system has a way to talk to Windows."

"The value of the logo will be high early in the hardware life cycle- until all hardware is compatible," Mr. Goetschel said.

Demand is coming mainly from corporations that want to enhance sign-on security and control access to intranets and virtual private networks, but the technology and its benefits could extend to consumer applications like home banking.

The validation program could encompass millions of devices. Microsoft estimates that 10% to 20% of Windows NT 5.0 buyers will use smart cards for building or network access; the first-year estimate for NT 5.0 shipments was 20 million.

Microsoft said vendors supporting the logo program include Gemplus Corp., Schlumberger Electronic Transactions, Siemens Nixdorf Information Systems, Litronic Inc., Bull, SCM Microsystems Inc., AMMI, Giesecke & Devrient, and Rainbow Technologies Inc.

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