An announcement set for today will reveal more about the payments software company Trintech Group than the usual run of new product details.
It will reflect the role Trintech played a week ago in the agreement on the Electronic Commerce Modeling Language, the standard for digital wallets that was endorsed by some of the most influential companies doing business and processing payments on the Internet.
Trintech is launching ezCard, a "virtual credit card" for Internet transactions that the Irish-American technology company has been promoting behind the scenes in recent months. The idea gained momentum in part because of Trintech's close relationships with companies like Compaq Computer Corp. and Visa International.
As the first piece of consumer software that embodies Electronic Commerce Modeling Language principles, ezCard indicates that Trintech was far more than a company that was just along for the ride.
Visa U.S.A. orchestrated the effort devoted to, and the publicity surrounding, what has become known as ECML. Trintech chief executive officer John McGuire pointed out that Visa's activism stemmed from several innovative electronic payment programs around the world that were powered by Trintech software.
The Visa-Trintech relationship was solidified in recent weeks with the introduction of Visa's Internet Payment Gateway. Underpinning this system, designed to promote rapid deployment of payment services for on-line merchants, was Trintech's PayGate NetAcquirer software.
At the same time, these companies were together pushing for ECML. It took shape as a classic Internet-era standardization campaign. Aggressive competitors decided it would be to their and the market's long-term benefit to increase the size of the pie, rather than fight over crumbs. And like- minded technologists rallied to the idea.
When asked how Trintech might benefit from a standard available to anybody, Mr. McGuire said, "We actually have it in our products today," apparently ahead of the competition.
"Being the biggest on the Internet does not necessarily mean you are the best," he said. "You want to be the fastest. A rapid response is what we have gained a reputation for.
"Having to share it is the Internet way. The advantage is in being fastest to market." For now, Trintech is claiming that victory while basking with others in the glow of ECML.
The idea of standardizing personal payment information for e-commerce was so compelling that Visa, MasterCard, and American Express all agreed on it.
Once the virtual wallets become common on personal computers, shoppers would dip into them the way they make payment choices at real-world stores. The payment brands and card-issuing banks will be vying for favorable positions-a process that may be a bit different on-line, where many consumers choose a single "default card" for all purchases from a given site.
Microsoft Corp. and two archrivals, America Online Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc., also climbed on the bandwagon. Alongside Trintech were International Business Machines Corp. and electronic-wallet competitors Cybercash Inc. and Transactor Networks. Compaq was among the primary ECML sponsors, and Dell Computer Corp. was in the first group of "e-tailers" supporting the format.
"ECML will help Dell customers easily complete their on-line transactions and further strengthen our direct, one-on-one relationship with them," Janet Mountain, vice president of Dell Home Systems, said in a comment typical of those who hailed the ECML release on June 14.
Mr. McGuire said a number of necessities conspired for this invention. He and others cited findings by Jupiter Communications, a New York research firm, that cumbersome payment processes led 27% of e-commerce buyers to abandon their orders before checkout. Other estimates have been higher. Rockbridge Associates of Great Falls, Va., just published a survey showing 58% of consumers do not consider any type of on-line financial transaction safe.
A Jupiter survey also found that 76% of merchants agreed with the concept of an interchangeable or multisite wallet because of the benefits of completed sales.
In developing and maintaining merchant and wallet software, Trintech and its peers had to overcome significant technical obstacles. Wallets for consumer desktops were never popular, largely because they required effort on the part of the client and downloading time for the PC. Trintech's wallet required two megabytes of memory, more compact than some competitors' but still highly complicated, Mr. McGuire said.
"Server-side wallets" took hold instead, with the data maintained in secure merchant computers. But that did not meet the goal of "making the e- commerce experience convenient for the cardholder," Mr. McGuire said. To keep its software updated, Trintech would have to adjust to a multitude of server wallet formats. "Of the top 100 retailer Web sites, almost every one put up a different payment page when asking for details from the consumer," he added.
Controlling the confusion with "brute force" programming might work for a few hundred or a thousand Internet merchants, Mr. McGuire said, but not the 600,000 that researchers are projecting over the next few years-a number he views as conservative.
With ECML, key market participants are buying into a standard method for storing consumer information and automatically "populating" merchants' order forms at checkout time.
Trintech, which has dual headquarters in Dublin and in Silicon Valley, previewed its revisionist consumer wallet last month at the Cardtech/Securtech conference in Chicago. Mr. McGuire described ezCard as not just a virtual credit card that is represented by an icon on the consumer's PC, but also as a bank marketing opportunity.
"A lot of what card issuers have been doing on the Internet has been defensive," he said. "Now the marketers can become more offensive," creating the equivalent of "take one" fliers at on-line merchant sites, inviting applications for jointly promoted cards, possibly offering loyalty incentives, and delivering the virtual card on the spot.
"A small bank with a $250,000 investment can be a global issuer," Mr. McGuire said, contrasting that with the tens of millions that Bank One Corp. and its First USA card-issuing division are spending to lock up prime Internet advertising locations.
He warned that competition for cardholder loyalty could come from unexpected quarters. An America Online, he said, might take advantage of the technology to start a private-branded payment and loyalty card, virtually overnight.
Still in the testing mode, ezCard, as part of Trintech's PayGate NetIssuer product, is expected to be fully available by August.
"The onus is on technology companies to deliver clean solutions that increase revenues, lower costs, and make it easier for consumers, merchants, and banks," Mr. McGuire said. Once the technology is available, and the standards are wide open, competition can be a free-for-all.