The mathematical conundrums of cryptography are just a part of a bigger business puzzle that Addison M. Fischer has spent 15 years trying to piece together.
Mr. Fischer has spent much of his career starting, buying, or investing in companies and technologies capable of securing electronic data and ensuring personal privacy. Long before the Internet entered mass consciousness, this information technology visionary was working on ways to make electronic media safe for commerce.
With the recent explosion of interest in electronic commerce has come a related boom in data encryption, digital certificate, and smart card authentication technologies - and new prominence in banking and other circles for companies in the Fischer portfolio such as Certco Inc., RSA Data Security Inc., SmartDisk Corp., Verisign Inc., and Xcert International Inc.
These and other entities are viewed as building blocks for e-commerce-a buzzword that Mr. Fischer said he may have been the first to use. Low-key and rarely interviewed, he defined his task simply as "building the future."
Mr. Fischer, who is 50, started by founding Fischer International Systems Corp. of Naples, Fla., in 1982. He described its mission as to "get rid of all paper transactions." But the early Fischer endeavors were but foreshadowings of the empire that was to result.
The company's first products were Tao, a global messaging system that runs on IBM mainframe computers, and WatchDog, security software for personal computers.
"These led to the confluence of my realization that public key technology was going to be key to security and electronic commerce," said Mr. Fischer, referring to the revolutionary advance in encryption systems, dating back to the 1970s, that ensures security even when the sender and receiver do not share the private key-that secret string of digits that scrambles sensitive transmissions.
Public key encryption is an element of digital certification, the technique for authenticating parties to a transaction that Mr. Fischer said "is going to be one of the next big areas after we feel comfortable with the technology that identifies who you are."
He backs that conviction with investments in the likes of Certco, Verisign, and Xcert, which are deep into public key infrastructure technologies and certificates.
"You're going to find checks and balances in the business sense, so that the company or institution will have some control over individuals and the ability to hold them accountable," Mr. Fischer said in a recent conversation at his Florida headquarters.
He holds about 40 patents. Some of them, he said, are so far out there that the world is not yet ready for them. He is currently talking up time- stamping, a technique for authenticating the timing of digitally signed documents.
Mr. Fischer is working with Surety Technologies of Florham Park, N.J., to put some of his time-stamping techniques to use, and he said he expects them to begin taking off in the next six months.
Mr. Fischer divides his time among 12 companies that he owns or invests in and advises. He also reviews stacks of new business plans that pile up on his desk and continues to develop technology on his own, though he devotes less of his time to that than in the past.
Perhaps most visible among Fischer products today is the Smarty, a diskette-like device that enables personal computers to read smart cards.
Mr. Fischer bought some original patents, developed the ideas, and now sells Smarty through a 1998 spinoff, SmartDisk Corp., which is 60% owned by Fischer International, 20% by Toshiba Corp., and 20% by Hitachi Inc. and other Japanese investors.
Visa International, BankAmerica Corp., and Chase Manhattan Corp. are among the users of Smarty. It got a distribution boost last year through an agreement with Gemplus, the French smart card manufacturer.
Gemplus, its competitors with the requisite equipment, and virtually the whole PC establishment from Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp. on down have been supporting the idea that smart card readers be built into keyboards or attached peripherally.
Mr. Fischer, not the only one to express impatience with the manufacturers, wanted to push the market with Smarty.
"I've been hearing about putting smart card readers into keyboards for five years now and I've never seen such a keyboard, at least not in a store," he said. Chip-ready keyboards have been displayed at Comdex and other computer shows and have been shipped by Hewlett-Packard Co. and others, but are certainly far from the mainstream.
Like many data security experts, Mr. Fischer is a believer in the superiority of hardware-based encryption. He sees smart cards as a readily available form of physical token "where we can create applications today and make them work."
He said Smarty is "one of the dominant ways to secure payments over the Internet for the foreseeable future." He said it will take eight to 10 years for smart card readers on PCs to make the portable 3.5-inch device obsolete. In that time SmartDisk will continue to come out with new products and adapters.
"Before you put a smart card reader into a keyboard, you will have to have applications, and the applications won't be proven until you have something like Smarty to make them work," he asserted.
Turning toward its own electronic business products, Fischer International recently named Richard X. Szatkowski president and chief executive officer, with Mr. Fischer remaining chairman.
Mr. Szatkowski was senior vice president of Alltel Corp., where he founded and led a software products department in the company's telecom division. Michael S. Battaglia, who had been president and CEO of both Fischer International and SmartDisk, is now entirely devoted to the latter.
Mr. Fischer's early convictions about a paperless office led to his involvement in the 1980s with RSA Data Security of San Mateo, Calif., a company that has defined the commercial data encryption field with its patents, cryptography products, and sales leadership.
He spoke with obvious pride and nostalgia about the years when he was RSA's primary investor, keeping the fledgling company afloat as he and its president, Jim Bidzos, battled business and political obstacles.
For one, the U.S. government restricted exports of software with long, hard-to-break encryption keys.
Mr. Fischer "saw the value of the technology very early," Mr. Bidzos said. "He knows how the Internet is going to change the way business is done and he's got several inventions of his own in that respect."
Mr. Fischer has had less to do with RSA since it was acquired in 1996 by Security Dynamics Technologies Inc. of Bedford, Mass., but he still regards it as "the biggest thing in the industry right now" that he is related to. "I brought it through a really tough decade," Mr. Fischer said.
He was also a founding investor in RSA Data's digital authentication spinoff, Verisign Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., which went public last year.
Mr. Bidzos said few people have such a range of skills as Mr. Fischer's- as an inventor, investor, and "very, very successful businessman."
"If you look at the way people do business today, they do business with contracts, third parties, and signatures," Mr. Bidzos said. "He very much understands how that will all translate into the world of e-commerce. And all of his companies will play a role in that."
Thomas Nolan, president and CEO of Xcert International in Walnut Creek, Calif., called Mr. Fischer a "technology visionary" and a long-term investor who is "very patient and isn't looking for a quick return."
Mr. Fischer is the principal investor in three-year-old Xcert, which counts the American Bankers Association as one of its major customers. He recruited Mr. Nolan to bring high-tech business discipline to what had been a typical entrepreneurial start-up.
"Addison is the kind of guy who, although he owns a majority of Xcert's shares, gives advice, but not in any kind of dictatorial way," Mr. Nolan said.
Mr. Fischer compared Xcert's potential to that of Verisign, fitting into that grand vision of a public key encryption infrastructure, or PKI.
After working with RSA Data, he said development of certification authorities was a necessary next step to manage the credentials of people transacting business electronically. Also in this realm, Mr. Fischer became one of the founding investors of Certco, a certification spinoff of Bankers Trust Corp. in 1996.
He said Certco, which is technology supplier to a major banking industry PKI initiative known informally as the global trust organization, "has combined an interdisciplinary financial model addressing legal, regulatory, and banking concerns together with innovative software and cryptographic technology."
"I felt that Verisign, Xcert, and Certco have three different plays in the certification market," Mr. Fischer said. "A lot of Verisign's sizzle is certifying things for network authentication and servers. Certco is trying to position itself as a really high-end product. Xcert has the opportunity to fill everything else."
Mr. Fischer said he has stayed out of the limelight because he is shy and lacks charisma, yet he speaks passionately about digital security and e-business - and even pounded the table when laying out his philosophy on digital security.
"It's a good thing and we need it," he exclaimed, half-jokingly.
He becomes more serious on the question of whether banks will be the guarantors of e-commerce security.
Noting that U.S. bankers have been slow to embrace smart cards, he said he thinks they will be one of the catalysts for adoption. But he is convinced that smart cards will prevail "no matter what happens."
"I'm using a sort of broader-brush stroke rather than trying to figure out which particular application will make this all happen," he said. "There are going to be a lot of things smart cards will be used for, not just one killer app."
Understandably, SmartDisk's major growth areas are in Asia and Latin America, which lack a U.S.-type telecommunications infrastructure for transaction authorizations and security.
Mr. Fischer, who speaks with a slight Southern drawl, was born in Kentucky, spent his childhood in Louisiana, and went to high school and college in West Virginia.
He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics from West Virginia University and started doctorate studies before being swept away by the computer world.
Working at his college computer center, he started to develop security programs for mainframes. In 1980 he developed technology for stock-market forecasting and became a partner in Duquesne Capital Management, a $1 billion asset management company, where he is still a board member.
He has addressed Congress on several topics, including digital signature standards, proposed digital telephony legislation, and the United States' global competitiveness. He is a life member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.
His white paper, "Electronic Document Authorization," won awards in the early 1990s from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Computer Security Center of the Department of Defense.
Reflecting on his years of puzzle-solving, he joked, "If I knew all the pieces that were involved to make (electronic commerce) happen, then I never would have gotten involved in the first place.
"Now that we've got a few of them out there already working, it feels much better," he said. "The vision that I had 10 or 15 years ago is manifesting now."