Spyrus has a new smart card weapon for the corporate security fray.

The Santa Clara, Calif., digital security specialist announced the availability last week of Portico, a package with a smart card and reader that is designed to give a higher level of authentication than the increasingly worrisome user-name/password combinations.

Portico, which includes Spyrus' Rosetta smart card and Personal Access Reader, makes the race to sell smart cards for corporate or enterprise use more crowded. This is seen as a more immediate growth prospect than the consumer market, though the latter is starting to heat up with the recent introduction of American Express Co.'s Blue credit card with smart card chip and plug-in reader for personal computers.

Gemplus and other major card producers, the hardware security vendor Litronic Inc. of Irvine, Calif., Celo Communications of Sweden and Silicon Valley, Cylink Corp. of Sunnyvale, Calif., and others are promoting smart cards for user authentication. The economics -- the "cost per seat," in enterprise computing terminology -- is crucial. With unit prices for card-reader packages falling toward or below $50, particularly for large quantities, some chip card advocates are looking more and more seriously toward the consumer market and related electronic commerce possibilities as well.

Prices can fall only so far as long as most PCs lack built-in smart card readers. That prompted one vendor, Rainbow Technologies of Irvine, Calif., to develop and promote iKey, which puts the chip in a simple, thumb-size piece of hardware that can be inserted into a standard USB -- universal serial bus -- port.

Spyrus brings to bear reading technology that it acquired last year from Oki Electronics of Japan. It also boasts the strong security features of Rosetta, a smart card adaptation of the computer cards that it built to the U.S. government's Fortezza national security specifications.

Spyrus lists Portico at $75, "with significant discounts for quantity purchases."

In its product announcement, Spyrus stressed Portico's flexibility. It can connect to desktop PCs or laptops, works with both Microsoft and Netscape browser technology, and "can grow as needs increase," the company said. It currently supports secure e-mail, network access, and sign-on authentication, and it can be upgraded to deliver full PKI, or public key encryption infrastructure, capabilities.

"Portico represents a sound investment in the future for organizations," said chief executive officer Sue Pontius. "The power of these products is yet to be used to capacity, so they will grow with company needs as new applications are developed. And as security requirements grow, Portico provides a natural migration path to public key solutions."

"Customers are asking for strong authentication for network security," the company announcement said. "A public-key-based smart card platform answers this need perfectly" as a form of "just-in-time security -- the ability to incrementally grow infrastructures to meet security needs."

Elsewhere in its security portfolio, Spyrus made another bid for volume. It drastically cut the pricing of its SSL software.

SSL, or Secure Sockets Layer, is the predominant security protocol for Internet transactions. Like a major rival in the field, Certicom Corp., Spyrus has been gearing up for increased demand for SSL and its new generation, Transaction Layer Security, while reducing the complexities of choosing and licensing standard encryption algorithms such as those owned by RSA Security Inc.

Spyrus has been trying to capitalize on the fact that it is the only vendor besides RSA with rights to directly license aspects of the RSA BSAFE tool kit.

Effective immediately, Spyrus said, its DeviceSSL and TLS Gold software-developer kits cost $95, down from $4,900. Prepaid distribution rights were eliminated and royalties are paid quarterly as products are deployed. The cost of yearly support agreements was halved, to $12,500.

RSA distribution royalties for BSAFE remain at 2% of sales or $1 per device. Distribution royalty rates for the Spyrus cryptographic module are half of those. Spyrus offers for unlimited distribution an SSL version with the Diffie-Hellman/DSA cipher suite for $45,000 a year including support.

Ms. Pontius said Spyrus' work with customers made clear that previous pricing was "cost-prohibitive;" the new structure "matches the customers' business model," she said.

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