Brimming with confidence after a strong show of vendor support, Visa sounds ready to cash the winning ticket in the smart card standards race.
While a debate still rages with MasterCard's Mondex affiliate on the merits of contrasting operating systems, Visa International senior vice president Philip Yen claimed his organization's momentum is insurmountable.
"We will know over the next 12 to 18 months," Mr. Yen said in an interview this week. But when asked if he had any doubt about the outcome, he replied, "No."
Visa latched on to the Java programming language and an application programming interface, or API, known as JavaCard 2.0. Visa stresses the "open" nature of the standard, the fact it can operate with any type of computing system. Mr. Yen's business responsibility is defined as "open platform."
At the annual Cardtech/Securtech conference this week, Visa said cards complying with its Java 2.0 companion, Open Platform 1.0, will soon be ready for testing.
The core "Visa Smart" applications-credit, debit, and stored value-are Java-ready, and the company is offering "open licensing at no charge" to stimulate vendor activity, Mr. Yen said.
Mondex's competing Multos operating system is based on a proprietary language called MEL but is also open in the sense that it can accommodate numerous platforms, including Java. Like Visa, Mondex/Multos has much of the card technology industry producing to its specifications and multiple- application cards on the way.
Mr. Yen and Visa perceive a groundswell of support fueled by the popularity of Java, with hundreds of thousands of programmers said to be working in the language.
More than 50 technology suppliers will support Open Platform. Mr. Yen said he expects that to double by midyear, assuring "a wider array of sourcing options for card issuers." Banks can expect "maximum flexibility and greater options as they build smart card capabilities to meet the specific needs of their customers."
Smart card makers Gemplus and De la Rue Card Systems are expected to have the first Java-based cards available later in the year, followed by Schlumberger, Giesecke & Devrient, and others. Software development tools are available from Gemplus, Schlumberger, and Symantec, Visa said.
"They have been very aggressive," said Patrice Peyret, director of consumer transactions for Sun Microsystems' JavaSoft unit.
"We are getting to critical mass," said Henry Lichstein, a Citibank vice president. "No application designer worth his salt will start with anything but Java."
In a speech during a Visa reception in Washington, Mr. Lichstein, a vocal open-system crusader, praised Visa for "the courage to get out front and devote its energies to an open standard. It is a point that the industry can rally around."
"We need the open platform," he said. "Electronic purse is the first application, but we need more applications that are interoperable. The consumer needs a simple value proposition and doesn't care what kind of technology we use."
Mr. Yen said the broad buy-in to Java will enable standardization agreements across industry lines-and within financial services. He stopped short of saying there would be an agreement with Mondex, but people on both sides have left open the possibility.
In a related development, Visa listed a number of vendors supporting the Visa Smart initiative it announced in March to help banks assess their markets and launch programs. They include system integrators NCR Corp. and 3-G International Inc., and terminal vendors Intellect Electronics and Ascom Monetel.
3-G International president Thomas Gregg said he sees Visa not only supporting smart card deployment but also "pushing the boundaries of the technology through its multi-application approach."