With the dust not yet settled from Microsoft Corp.'s bold move on the smart card market, Sun Microsystems Inc. has issued some not-so-subtle reminders that it is no johnny-come-lately.
Sun, a Microsoft competitor and antagonist in numerous contexts, has had smart cards in its sights for years. They fall within the range of computing devices-sometimes characterized as "thin clients"-that fit the network computing construct that the Silicon Valley company champions.
Ever since Sun went commercial with its Java programming language, and in several public demonstrations of enterprise computing systems, Sun executives have held chip-embedded plastic cards aloft as an embodiment of their principles that "the network is the computer" and that programs can be "written once to run anywhere."
Not to be outdone by Microsoft's announcement Tuesday of Windows-Based Smart Card, an attempt to stimulate technology development in the most established and familiar of all programming environments, Sun announced a system extension of its own at the Cartes '98 conference in Paris.
Through what it calls the SunConnect Architecture for Card and Payment Systems, Sun said banks and their customers can get everything they need for integrated electronic payment systems, including an easy migration path from legacy systems to client/server structures, smart cards, and further new wrinkles.
Meanwhile, the Java Card Forum, a group of vendors and banks that works with Sun's JavaSoft unit on specifications for application programming interfaces, marked the completion of its second year with the release of several technical enhancements in Java Card API version 2.1.
Sun executive Patrice Peyret pointed out that the number of Java Card licensees has grown to 28 from 14 at the time of the Cartes '97 conference and a year before that.
"We are making fairly good progress," said Mr. Peyret of Sun's consumer and embedded technology group. He was referring to Sun-Java as well as to an apparent technology explosion in smart cards.
Though Mr. Peyret and others of like mind were critical of Microsoft's attempt to extend its operating system to cards, they saw it as a competitive infusion that could benefit the common cause.
"We have been consistent about wanting to allow maximum choices," said Philip Yen, senior vice president of Visa International, who oversees the Visa Open Platform program that has Java at its foundation. "The technology is moving very fast, and this reinforces our belief in the strategy."
MasterCard International, which controls the competing Mondex program and supports the Multos operating system, similarly welcomes choices, said senior vice president Richard Phillimore. Despite its opposition, Mondex has windows into Sun-the system's originator, Natwest Group of London, is a Java Card Forum member, as is Citibank.
With SunConnect for cards and payments, "write once, run anywhere" has evolved into "any card, anytime, anywhere," said Arthur Coleman, market segment manager in Sun Microsystems' cards and payment systems group.
He said Sun has the "end-to-end architecture" that others lack. He said it addresses the fact that banks are "caught between a rock and a hard place"-they must cut back-office costs as a matter of survival while accommodating an explosion of technologies and delivery alternatives.
"We make it feasible for a bank to implement SET (the credit card industry's Internet protocol) today and put in smart cards later," he said.
Sun listed 21 card and payment vendors supporting SunConnect, notably smart card providers Bull, De La Rue, and Schlumberger, and software companies BroadVision, Brokat, HNC, and Paysys.
Another is Hypercom Corp., the transaction terminal maker, which has established a close cooperative relationship with Sun. Hypercom chairman and chief technologist George Wallner has been an outspoken critic of bank smart card strategies and would view SunConnect as compatible with gradualism.
"Client/server solutions, especially when based on PC architectures, in the past delivered flexibility at the expense of throughput," Mr. Wallner said. SunConnect with Hypercom's Ascendent software "provides a high- throughput solution that retains all the flexibility of client/server."
SunConnect is the generic, Java-based framework for multiple financial delivery channels. The goal for cards is "a completely open framework that would support all standards and payment protocols running concurrently in the same environment," said Rob Hall, Sun's vice president, worldwide financial services.
"In an industry landscape of evolving technology standards and aggressive competitors," he said, "this SunConnect extension caters to the specific needs of card issuers, merchant-acquirers, third-party processors, and automated teller machine switch operators."
"We think it is wonderful that Sun is going beyond just the card," said Mr. Yen. Cards are basically "dumb," he said, and SunConnect will foster needed advances in back-end processing and card-reading devices.