The unveiling of Verifone Inc.'s new credit card payment system for the Internet was heralded by the company and its partner banks as the dawn of a new era of electronic commerce.
But analysts expressed skepticism that the new service alone would jump- start on-line financial exchanges between merchants and consumers.
Hatim A. Tyabji, Verifone's president and chief executive officer, said the system promises to turn the vision of a secure, flourishing Internet marketplace into reality. It is the first to employ the Secure Electronic Transaction protocol developed by MasterCard and Visa, according to Verifone officials.
"This is no longer something that we are talking about," Mr. Tyabji said. "This is no longer a technology where we are going to provide charts and concepts. We have real products now."
Verifone, the world's largest maker of credit card authorization terminals, has much experience in retail commerce. And the first banks to sign up to use the system - Wells Fargo & Co. and Royal Bank of Canada - are influential.
But the system may still face a difficult test in finding consumers willing to entrust transactions to it.
"I think people are making a very large assumption that there will be large numbers of people who want to be shopping in cyberspace," said Victor Wheatman, vice president of electronic commerce strategies in the San Jose, Calif., office of the Gartner Group.
Mr. Wheatman raised the issue of consumer acceptance. Consumers already have the ability to pay for goods and services on the Internet by credit card, he said, and he doubts that Verifone's announcement would "make them feel warm and fuzzy" about the security of Internet transactions.
"I have serious concerns about the investments that companies are putting into this on a wing and a prayer," Mr. Wheatman said. "There are only 10 million people or so that have World Wide Web access."
But Verifone officials said Internet commerce was being held back by the absence of secure products being offered by banks. The officials said they believe the trust that merchants and consumers have in their banks would help Verifone's system gain acceptance.
The products are designed to be the electronic equivalents of the popular point-of-sale terminals that Verifone provides today for processing credit cards. The terminals are used by three-quarters of U.S. merchants.
"The channels we have employed in the physical space map directly to the channels we plan to use in virtual space," Mr. Tyabji said.
The new payment software, which Wells Fargo expects to begin using this fall, includes "vGATE," which financial institutions can use as an Internet gateway, and "vPOS," which merchants can use to connect to the system.
A third piece of software will be brought to market later this year: "vWALLET," which consumers will be able to use to store credit card numbers, shipping and billing information, and other personal data.
"It is our belief that, in the long term, the Internet is potentially the most attractive merchandising environment we have," said Dudley Nigg, executive vice president at Wells.
"At Wells Fargo, we have found that our most satisfied customers are those that access us through the Internet," he continued. "What we're seeing is, the electronic environment is an even cheaper alternative than the telephone and with potentially more content."
Several companies have already brought to market systems that they describe as secure Internet payment mechanisms. One, Cybercash Inc., produces a "wallet" product that it says will be made to comply with evolving SET standards.
Magdalena Yesil, a vice president and co-founder of Cybercash, said SET standards are still being fine-tuned, making Verifone's announcement premature.
"I find it very interesting that someone can announce a SET-compatible product when SET is still in definition," she said.
Ms. Yesil also said that bringing the gateway and point-of-sale software to market in advance of the consumer software is the equivalent of introducing "one end" of an end-to-end system.
Cybercash and Verifone have formed a strategic partnership.
Asked whether Verifone's Internet payment system is designed to compete with the Cybercash wallet, Roger B. Bertman, vice president and general manager of Verifone's Internet commerce division, said the two offerings "overlap in the credit card arena."
But the products do not overlap in "the micropayments area, which is the area where we see Cybercash having an opportunity," he said.
Many top names in electronic commerce have supported Verifone's Internet payment system.
At a press conference held Tuesday in San Francisco, high-level representatives of companies like Visa International, MasterCard International, AT&T, Oracle Corp., RSA Data Security Inc., and Novus Services (a unit of Dean Witter, Discover & Co.) endorsed the Verifone system.
Mr. Wheatman pointed to notable absences from the list of endorsing companies. American Express was not there, nor was Netscape, which pulled out at the last minute.
But James Bidzos, president of RSA Data Security, said Verifone's announcement opened a new era in electronic commerce.
"Today is really significant," said Mr. Bidzos, whose company's encryption methods lie at the heart of many Internet security products. "This is where you're going to be seeing the rubber hitting the road in terms of electronic commerce taking off."