After a series of mostly modest tryouts, smart cards are opening today in New York.

The city's two biggest banks-Chase Manhattan and Citibank-are joining forces with MasterCard and Visa not only to gauge consumer and merchant acceptance but also to show that competing brands and systems can coexist as in the credit card business.

If deemed successful, the six-month pilot on Manhattan's Upper West Side could go a long way toward proving the viability of cards with embedded computer chips. A failure in the big-city media glare would probably be disastrous.

With 25,000 cards to be distributed by each bank, the trial will be larger than any other in North America except for the one Visa conducted during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. But most of those cards were simple cash replacements and not tied to banking services.

Chase will issue Mondex cards, and Citibank will issue Visa Cash cards. They can be loaded with up to $500 of cash value at automated teller machines or at kiosks in merchant locations. Among the 600 participating merchants in the area between 60th and 96th streets west of Central Park are Burger King, Duane Reade drug stores, and Gristede's supermarkets.

The companies originally aimed to begin the test during 1996. It was put on hold in part to allow MasterCard to introduce the technology of Mondex International Ltd., of which it acquired 51% in February. But the focus on "interoperability" has never changed, and the timetable culminating in today's official launching was set several months ago.

"Our intent from the beginning was to demonstrate that both products, which we think are the two major smart card programs on a global basis, could work together," said Ronald Braco, senior vice president, Chase Manhattan Bank.

Henry A. Lichstein, a Citibank vice president, echoed that: "The trial will demonstrate interoperability between two substantially different electronic purse products. It will put in the hands of consumers a capability to speed their transactions at the checkout counter, and it will give merchants the opportunity to increase sales and improve service to their customers."

"Consumers will change their behavior if there is more value or more convenience," Mr. Lichstein added. "We think that the smart card ... will offer convenience, and so the behavior will change."

Citibank plans to give out several thousand Verifone Personal ATMs, hand-sized card-reading devices that connect to phone lines, for use in consumers' homes.

Chase said it will offer a comparable Mondex device in the next few months, allowing money and account information to flow over the phone.

Retailers have been signed up by National Data Corp., the Novus Services division of Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter, Discover & Co., and Chase's joint merchant processing venture with First Data.

"I think anything that gives people more options to pay is good," said Andrew Albert, executive director of the West Side Chamber of Commerce. "It frees people from carrying cash for small purchases."

Robert G. Caballes, controller of the famous Zabar's food emporium on Broadway, said more and more customers are using ATM and debit cards for purchases. Smart cards are a next step, he said.

"Customers want" smart cards, Mr. Caballes said. "It has always been my policy to keep up with technology."

But Zabar's evaluation will be hard-nosed: "If after one month there is no usage," he said, "we will not continue."

"Smart cards are the future," said Douglas H. Levine, president and chief executive officer of Crunch Fitness International. "When you go to the gym, you can leave your wallet at home."

He said he is looking into ways to use the chip-based technology as a membership card, phone card, credit card, and for tracking shopper-loyalty points.

The Manhattan pilot is being marketed with signs at merchant locations, advertisements in newspapers, and on radio.

"We think consumers, in how they use financial products, are continuing to evolve," said Janet Crane, president and chief executive officer of Mondex U.S.A. "Our goal is to go out and begin to make the market."

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