With new and wider support, a standardization initiative closely associated with MasterCard International and its Mondex subsidiary is gathering steam.

Those affiliates and their supporters-including AT&T Corp., Hewlett- Packard Co., and International Business Machines Corp.-announced this week that they had put out for comment a proposed Open Trading Protocol, or OTP, specification.

Designed to promote retail commerce on the Internet, the standard still may be some distance away from what technologists refer to as full production. It would set rules for many aspects of a consumer electronic transaction, ranging from offers for sale and choices of payment vehicle to product delivery, receipts, and problem resolution.

But supporters of OTP celebrate the draft, which has been posted on the Internet (www.otp.org) after almost a year of effort, as a major accomplishment. They expect testing to follow in short order.

Michael Keegan, chief executive officer of Mondex International, called the publication "an important milestone."

"If the potential of electronic commerce is to be fully realized," he said, "it will flourish only in a truly open and interoperable environment (like the one) the OTP standards provide."

Enhancing the statement's credibility is that what began as a project of a handful of companies has blossomed into a consortium of more than 30, which is to be independently governed.

The greater openness attracted, among others, IBM. That in turn increased OTP's momentum because of IBM's stature in the technology community and its aggressive advocacy of electronic commerce, or in IBM parlance e-business.

"Nobody owns OTP-it is a consortium," Mark Greene, IBM vice president of Internet payments and certification, said during the RSA Data Security Conference in San Francisco.

"We became more comfortable when (OTP) was positioned as less of a Mondex initiative," Mr. Greene said. Deeming it a true industrywide standardization effort, he said, IBM assigned the same team to OTP that had been working on SET, the MasterCard- and Visa-supported Secure Electronic Transactions protocol for Internet credit card payments.

The IBMers have been on the OTP detail six months-which was not publicized until the announcement that coincided with the RSA conference, an annual gathering for leaders in data encryption and other parts of the on-line security business.

Visa, critical and disdainful of Mondex, is still not in the club. It complained early in the process that the Open Trading Protocol was not really open.

OTP's original organizers, besides MasterCard and Mondex, were Hewlett- Packard, the electronic commerce software company Open Market Inc., and Mondex International shareholders, including AT&T.

Visa could be said to be represented by proxy in OTP through the "duality" of Mondex members. For example, Royal Bank of Canada and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, though the two biggest Visa card issuers in Canada, were also that country's charter Mondex organizers and were active in OTP.

Another big, but absent electronic commerce influence, Microsoft Corp., also has some close connections. They include Wells Fargo Bank and Hewlett- Packard and its Verifone subsidiary-they consider themselves allies in SET and related causes-and First Data Corp., Microsoft's partner in the bill- presentment venture MSFDC.

Among the others behind OTP are some outright Microsoft antagonists- Netscape Communications Corp., Oracle Corp., and Sun Microsystems Inc.-as well as Cybercash Inc., Hitachi Ltd., Fujitsu Ltd., Nokia, and Spyrus. Their effort could gain further legitimacy under the umbrella of the International Standards Organization and American National Standards Institute, which are said to be considering such a proposal.

Mr. Greene pointed out that IBM joined hands with a competitor, Hewlett- Packard, to make their respective SET softwares compatible and to offer their documentation to the rest of the industry because "it was in our mutual self-interest." (The companies said Monday they had completed the first phase of their interoperability testing.)

Mr. Greene suggested OTP could become even more inclusive for similar reasons. Standards "are the key to making it easy for our customers to become e-businesses," he said. "OTP has done a significant service to the industry by making this standard available for all of us."

He said OTP "complements and does not replace SET."

"The industry needs concrete technologies like OTP that will enable electronic commerce," said Patrice Peyret, director of the Java commerce group of Sun Microsystems' JavaSoft unit. "Like the Java Card API (application programming interface), we expect OTP to provide a reliable foundation for transmitting a high volume of electronic transactions across almost any network."

Two new OTP members were announced: SIZ, a technology arm of the German Savings Banks Organization, which has become renowned for one of the world's most popular smart card introductions, the GeldKarte electronic purse; and Digicash Inc., the pioneering developer of digital currency for the Internet and smart cards.

Despite being in the E-cash business more than seven years, Digicash has struggled to gain mainstream acceptance. Its joining OTP may be as much a turning of the corner as was its recent recapitalization and move of its headquarters to Palo Alto, Calif., from Amsterdam.

"The OTP will ensure that traders, retailers, and shoppers will all speak the same electronic language," said Digicash president and chief executive officer Michael C. Nash. "We fully anticipate that Internet shopping will quickly become more popular in the next few years, and the OTP standards will help that process."

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