Visa U.S.A. took the wraps off of its digital wallet strategy Tuesday, saying it and participating banks could distribute as many as a million wallets to Internet shoppers before the year is out.

The San Francisco-based association said eight leading credit card organizations, including Bank One Corp. and MBNA Corp., are initially behind the initiative. The principal technology supplier is Cybercash Inc., but Visa has also worked with the newer software company and will cooperate with any vendor that a bank might choose.

"This is our wallet blitz, Phase 1," Steve Ryan, senior vice president in the e-Visa division, said of the program, which includes advertisements in major newspapers beginning this week. A second wave with "a longer list of banks" is slated for January.

Visa's announcement had been anticipated for months. The major card brands and a growing number of banks have been weighing in with these systems that streamline checkouts and payments at on-line merchant sites. All are trying to strengthen ties to customers, expecting to be rewarded by making on-line shopping lives easier.

American Express Co. has built a wallet component into its Blue credit card with smart card chip. MasterCard International made a joint announcement with International Business Machines Corp. on Sept. 14, stating mass-market ambitions similar to Visa's as the holiday season approached.

MasterCard is not commenting on its progress because no banks have made formal announcements, but "a number of members are in the process of implementing," a spokeswoman for the Purchase, N.Y., company said.

"I am not sure that MasterCard has put out a wallet yet," said Mr. Ryan, attempting to underscore differences in general progress and in the fact that Visa's strategy is decidedly "multi-vendor."

In "small, controlled pilots" with the Phase 1 banks since June, "we have five or six months' experience executing wallets with multiple vendors in the real world," he said.

Visa disclosed the names of only five of its eight banks, units of Bank One, Capital One Financial Corp., MBNA, Providian Financial Corp., and U.S. Bancorp. Mr. Ryan said the others are holding back for competitive or strategic-timing reasons. Banks in the second phase next year were delayed by year-2000 preparations or other considerations, he said, and Visa is offering support and consulting services to ease their way.

Cybercash's billing as "preferred partner" is gratifying for the Reston, Va., company that pioneered digital wallets in 1995 and survived numerous painful turns in a business that is only now apparently ready to meet mainstream demands. "Their four to five years' experience and significant bench strength were important criteria for us," Mr. Ryan said. He said the 80 people at Cybercash devoted to electronic wallets "are two to three times the entire staffs of some start-ups."

"The entry of Visa and these banks indicates that major players on the consumer side see major potential in wallets," said Cybercash executive vice president Nancy Goldberg. "Visa is the largest of the bank associations and is making a strong commitment to wallets as a form of increasing consumer convenience on the Internet, and Cybercash is certainly pleased to be the preferred partner."

But Mr. Ryan said an exclusive vendor deal would be "too risky at this stage of the game." Some banks have worked with two wallet software vendors, "and I know one that chose three," he said.

San Francisco-based Brodia has had a close relationship with Visa, having helped initiate the Electronic Commerce Modeling Language standard that wallet companies are adopting, Brodia chief executive officer Ron Martinez pointed out. Three of the Visa banks named in the announcement - Capital One, MBNA, and Providian - are on record as Brodia customers.

"Visa is one of the best spokesmen in this business and a great marketing company that recognizes this as really strategic for the banks," Mr. Martinez said. He said thousands of customers a day are enrolling for Brodia wallets and "it is not inconceivable" that the Visa collective can hit its goal of one million.

Ms. Goldberg did not comment on that figure, saying Cybercash as an infrastructure company defers to the consumer marketers for such judgments.

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