A trip to one of the capitals of Europe is all that it takes to understand the meaning and possibilities of smart cards, but traveler beware: The Europeans don't exactly have all the answers.

From a North American vantage point, one can get a different impression. Computer chips in plastic cards were invented over there. Banks, telephone companies, and other organizations in France, for example, the cradle of smart card innovation, have had a 15- to 20-year head start in experimenting with and putting these systems to work. The fruits of those labors were evident two weeks ago in Paris at Cartes '99, a major event on the international calendar of the smart card trade. An estimated 12,000 people visited an exhibition of offerings from 270 companies. A smaller number attended three full days of seminars that reflected industry realities in terms of dynamism, optimism, and a level of maturity that would have been lacking even two or three years ago.

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