If there were any doubts about its place in smart card history, Tysons Corner, Va., dispelled them last week.
The mall and office enclave west of Washington where members of the Smart Card Forum first got together in 1993 played host to a succession of meetings in the field last week.
They included the Smart Card Forum's third annual conference, which attracted a crowd of 500 that strained the capacity of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, as well as closed forum business meetings, working group meetings, and, when it was all over, another daylong seminar sponsored by the Electronic Funds Transfer Association.
The EFTA Association, which is based in nearby Herndon, Va., hoped some of the smart card people would stay an extra day for updates on several programs in the United States. Its session at the Ritz-Carlton attracted 65 people.
Brent Bowen, an executive with chip card manufacturer Schlumberger and chairman of the EFTA's point of sale special interest group, started the meeting with an overview of alternative technologies and changes in the payments system.
He asked, "Whose customer is it when an individual pays for merchandise - the retailer's, the card issuer's, or the product manufacturer's?"
He said "an interesting battle that will unfold over time" with the introduction of smart cards. Capable of bringing many products and services together with one payment vehicle, they are likely to blur the traditional boundaries.
When an audience member, who identified himself as a consumer advocate, asked, "What's in it for the consumer?" the speaker and other audience members rushed to respond - a sign of how important they believe consumer understanding will be.
The purported benefits included convenience and budgeting. Some pointed out that consumer research already signals strong interest in stored value or electronic purse cards, but one skeptic said such research does not always mirror reality.
Deborah Parrish, vice president of Visa U.S.A., presented a progress report on Visa Cash, the chip card that will be distributed in Atlanta starting this fall, if the schedule holds.
Though some merchants "won't cotton to this product," she said, "plenty will accept the technology."
She described the centralized clearing and settlement system for the cash cards and pointed out that targeted merchants are not traditional credit card accepters. They include fast food and newspaper vendors, mass transit systems, and cafeterias.
The products that Visa expects to offer include disposable and reloadable cash cards and a stored value application on an ATM card. They will be available through member financial institutions, card dispensing machines, and merchants.
Value can be added to reloadable cards at specially equipped ATMs and stand-alone loading devices that don't dispense cash. Issuers will offer deposit account holders a reloading function through personal computers and screen phones, said Ms. Parrish.
She said the Atlanta experiment would continue after the Olympics, though the smart cards will have expiration dates. Programs are in the works for other metropolitan areas, which haven't been announced.
Kevin Krest, vice president of card services for NationsBank, said the "official bank" of the Olympics is taking a more cautious approach to the stored value rollout than some of its partners.
Though there is a fair amount of cooperation with rivals First Union and Wachovia, including monthly meetings, he called the atmosphere "very competitive."
Mr. Krest said there was little actual business justification for a disposable chip card, but it will be the dominant offering from NationsBank. Reloadable cards are "up in the air," he added, but he was careful to add that NationsBank would issue them if the others do.
Referring to a competitor's projection of 5,000 merchants and four million consumers, he said, "I don't know where that number comes from."
Aside from the Olympic project with Visa, the North Carolina-based superregional is also a founding member of SmartCash, along with at least 10 other banks and MasterCard. "We're too big to look at a single solution," he said.
He said he was surprised by the legal ramifications of stored value. Though the Federal Reserve "may take a wait-and-see attitude" in terms of regulations, it should not affect the Atlanta launch.
He emphasized that banks wouldn't want to step on the toes of consumer advocates and lawyers, and must be perceived positively from the beginning. "This could die on the vine if we're not careful," he said.
Kurt Lutz, senior vice president of new product development at First of America Bank, noted that its 150 smart card terminals on and around the campuses of the University of Michigan and Western Michigan University have generated 3,800 point of sale transactions and 4,200 stored value transactions.
In addition, $60,000 in value was loaded into the cards in their first two weeks.
The chip-based student identification cards have been distributed to 18,000 incoming freshmen. Mr. Lutz said the program has increased the Kalamazoo, Mich., bank's local deposit market share.
Merchants pay a 4% discount fee to accept the cards, with a royalty going to the universities.