SAN FRANCISCO This years conference of the Smart Card Forum had a slight flavor of the victory celebration for the home team.
For those of us who have bled and sacrificed for the last 10 years to bring smart cards to the U.S., they have finally come, said Allen Gilstrap, vice president of American Express Services Europe Ltd. and the forums board chairman. Mr. Gilstrap, who took the chairmanship last year, was reappointed this year.
When the trade group held its conference a year ago, the American Express Blue card was the only smart card available in the U.S. market, and Mr. Gilstrap, who led the team that developed Blue, said he perceived a turning point for smart card technology in this country.
At the groups eighth annual meeting, held Wednesday and Thursday, further evidence of a turning point was visible. Just this month, Visa announced an inexpensive chip card platform, and three banking companies FleetBoston Financial Corp., Providian Financial Corp., and the First USA subsidiary of Bank One Corp. said they would introduce programs. Fleet Credit Card Services was the first to market, with its Fusion card, which became available Sept. 15.
Despite all this good news for chip card enthusiasts, not everyone in the smart card world is sanguine about the technologys future in the United States. Janet S. Crane, chief executive officer of Billpoint Inc. and a longtime smart card specialist, said the current flurry of activity may be too little, too late.
We think smart cards are way too far behind, she said.
Billpoint of San Jose, Calif., is owned by eBay Inc., the online auction site, and facilitates person-to-person payments among buyers and sellers on eBay auctions. Ms. Cranes former employer, Wells Fargo & Co., owns a 35% stake in Billpoint and does its processing and customer service.
The cost of the infrastructure is slowing the introduction of smart cards in the United States, and to such a degree that I am concerned the market may actually be closing, Ms. Crane said.
She warned that issuers may have only a year to push smart cards to the front of consumers wallets. People who sell goods on the eBay auction site prefer electronic checks, she said, because those who accept card payments for Internet sales must pay high interchange fees associated with card-not-present transactions.
With the advent of electronic checks and person-to-person payment capabilities, Ms. Crane said, smart card issuers may find that, by the time they have chip cards out in numbers, people may not be interested in changing how they do business on the Internet.
Buyers and sellers on eBay are not allowed to use Blue, or any other American Express card, because of the higher interchange fees, Ms. Crane said. We are more than delighted to pilot a product that makes really good sense for our buyers and sellers, she said. We have people who are screaming for new products. We need cards out there quickly.