Visa International said it is stepping up its commitment to smart card technology based on the Java programming language.

In a joint announcement last week with Sun Microsystems Inc., the owner and champion of Java, Visa said it will support development and promotion of powerful microprocessors so that a broad array of services can be delivered on the cards.

The companies expect to increase the performance and security of the central processing units of silicon chips. The hoped-for result is lower costs and thereby faster market acceptance.

"This offers our member financial institutions new opportunities to provide differentiated services, improve time to market, and enhance security," Philip Yen, Visa's senior vice president, chip platform, said at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Visa threw in its lot with Sun and Java early last year, making the Internet-friendly computer code a key element in the smart card strategy dubbed the Partner Program. Contrasting the cross-platform compatibility and easy upgrading of Java programs with the more proprietary operating system of MasterCard International's Mondex venture, Visa said the Partner Program would allow banks to migrate at whatever pace their strategies and markets called for.

That touched off a continuing debate over competing economic and standardization assumptions, not to mention the one about which association is ahead. Visa has numbers-more than seven million stored-value cards-but its technologies are not yet as unified and compatible as those on the one million cards produced for Mondex.

Mondex International answered back with Multos, likewise described as an "open platform" that could even accommodate Java programs.

Both camps enlisted silicon, card, and other technology suppliers for the various system components. Some-notably the card maker Gemplus and chip producers Motorola and Siemens-lined up on both sides.

Just as Mondex has pushed for more powerful microprocessors to handle the multiple applications it expects banks and others to load on the cards, Visa is now extending its software-focused cooperation with Sun to hardware.

Sun said it intends to license the resulting "Java processor core."

Microprocessors specifically for Java cards will "add to the already significant momentum," said Dhaval Ajmera, director of product marketing in Sun's microelectronics division. "This also continues our smart card microprocessor efforts started with Siemens Semiconductor and our ongoing effort to work with other semiconductor and card manufacturers."

Sun has said manufacturers representing more than 90% of the smart card market have signed on to the Java Card Application Programming Interface. Other technology partners in the Visa program include Verifone, IBM, Philips, Spyrus, and Toshiba.

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