Kearns' column: A dumb idea for smart cards

With all the hoopla and speculation about Microsoft's name change for Windows NT (to Windows 2000), you may have overlooked another operating system announcement the Redmondites made recently. But first, my take on the name change. It fulfilled the first rule of PR: Get people talking about the product. It doesn't matter what people are saying about it as long as they are talking about it.

But the announcement I really want to talk about is Microsoft's commitment to write a Windows operating system for smart cards. Here's the background: Initially we had "dumb" cards -- charge cards that were used to imprint identification information on paper.

Next came the first generation of smart cards. These have a magnetic stripe that can store a small amount of identification data. They are used to enter that data into a reader, which can verify the information, manipulate it, rewrite it, and so on. The latest generation includes microcircuitry and data storage, and these cards hold more information than the magnetic stripe cards while also having the benefit of random access. The magnetic stripe card is like a tape cassette, which must be read serially, while the new smart card is more like a solid state floppy disk.

So why does the smart card need an operating system? I've asked my pundit friends and searched trade magazines, but everything I've come across says a smart card only stores data.

Certainly the card does not do anything on its own. It must be inserted into a card reader, which is simply one more computer peripheral device. It's the computer, by means of the card reader, that reads, writes and manipulates the data. So why is Microsoft doing this?

Two reasons. First and foremost is that Sun is releasing a Java operating system for smart cards. The second is that Microsoft's bid for ownership of the standards for reading and writing cards, called the Smart Card Software Development Kit (a set of APIs released last year), has elicited zero support. Microsoft feels the need to control all aspects of computer use. If the Smart Card API won't fly, maybe the Smart Card Windows operating system will. Stranger things have happened.

Kearns, a former network administrator, is a freelance writer and consultant in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at wired@vquill.com

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