Armand Linkens and the Proton smart card organization that he runs find it possible to be optimistic about their prospects in the United States.
While many other chip card proponents are wringing their hands about U.S. resistance, Proton World International is deliberately pacing itself, having assumed all along that the experience here would be different from that of Europe.
"We see the U.S. market evolving from the bottom up, not the top down," Mr. Linkens said in an interview during the recent Cardtech/Securtech conference in Chicago. "We certainly don't expect to see a big bank making a move in the coming month. We do see others in the market making some moves."
Proton has a marquee licensee in American Express Co. Though that company has issued no more than a few thousand Proton-based electronic purse cards, it is believed to be aggressively developing more services.
American Express may use Proton to kick aside one of the chip card industry's technical obstacles. It wants to link Proton with the Multos operating system advocated by MasterCard International and its Mondex subsidiary. Considering that Proton is closely allied with the competing Visa camp, a long-awaited convergence of technical standards may be in the offing.
Meanwhile, Proton last month completed a previously announced licensing agreement with Pathways Group Inc. of Woodinville, Wash., a deal that typifies Mr. Linkens' "bottom up" notion. Pathways most recently announced an electronic purse system for a high school in Hawaii with multiple- application features that could be adopted more widely if smart cards ever take hold in the surrounding community.
Building on such modest U.S. inroads, Proton may be able to peak when the time is right. Mr. Linkens is counting on it, and he is well funded for the wait.
The Proton system dates from 1995, when it was created by the Belgian payments consortium Banksys. Under the aegis of Banksys, where Mr. Linkens spearheaded the chip card project, the system was sold to more national electronic purse operators than any other. The 40 million Proton-based cards in circulation, though fewer than in some other programs, are said to be the most actively used, having logged 74 million transactions.
Last year Proton was restructured under a consortium, with its equity shared by Banksys, American Express, ERG of Australia, Interpay of the Netherlands, and Visa International. They named Mr. Linkens managing director.
The big-name backing provides freedom to experiment and the wherewithal to "take a big piece of the market," Mr. Linkens said. "We can be ready before anyone else is."
Of his 105 staff people, he said, 60 are engaged in research and development. "We strongly believe in it," he said. "To my knowledge, other chip companies do not make that kind of commitment."
Differing from some other big names in the field, Proton professes not to be fighting an operating-system war. Mr. Linkens prefers to leave that to Visa, which advocates the Open Platform using Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java language; the competing Multos backers; and Microsoft Corp., with its Smart Card for Windows.
"There will be a lot of shakeout there," Mr. Linkens said. "I have never seen a market with so much hype." He said he wants to avoid at all costs repeating the experience of the personal computer industry before Microsoft's Windows emerged as a de facto standard.
He said he is "operating-system agnostic." Yet he clearly leans toward Visa Open Platform, seeing Java as particularly promising because of its Internet compatibility and the widespread availability of development tools.
Proton is also partial to CEPS, the Common Electronic Purse Specifications, another Visa initiative that has won support from just about everybody but Mondex. The sticking point is Mondex's selling point that chip-to-chip transactions are most economical when central auditing is minimized. Others want auditability.
Mr. Linkens said this is a problem of architecture more than technology, adding, "Nobody developing a computer system today would not have an audit trail in it."
"CEPS and interoperability are very important for markets like the U.S. to get things started," he said.