Microsoft Pushes Its Smart-Card Vision

Emphasizing the mobile aspects of its new Microsoft.NET strategy, Microsoft Corp. this week released an update to Windows for Smart Cards that includes support for the GSM (Global Systems for Mobile Communications) standard.

At its Smart Card Forum this week at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash. headquarters, company officials also outlined plans to spur Windows-based development of smart cards. President and CEO Steve Ballmer pointed to the U.S. General Services Administration's recent 10-year, $1.5 billion contract to deploy cards with Microsoft partners 3GI, Electronic Data Systems Corp., KPMG Consulting LLC, PRC, and Logicon Inc. as proof that the technology is catching on.

A key to GSM is the SIM (Subscriber Identification Model) card, which lets users be identified by any GSM phone. The Windows for Smart Cards Toolkit 1.1 includes SIM Explorer and SIM Outlook, which Ballmer called the first "killer app" for GSM phones.

Although GSM is popular in Europe and Asia, the most popular wireless standard in the United States is CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access). Motorola Inc. and Nokia Corp. are collaborating on another wireless standard, called 1Xtreme, which is optimized for high-speed Internet data transmission.

Windows for Smart Cards enjoys a strategic place in the Microsoft .NET platform, which aims to fulfill a "software as a service" vision: namely, Windows-based cards in mobile phones, which are not considered a good fit for Windows CE, and Pocket PCs that are connected to Exchange servers.

"We want to connect [smart-card] clients to servers -- both Windows NT and Exchange -- and that will also connect them to services," said Microsoft Product Manager Mike Dusche, who added that Microsoft has sold 20 million units of Windows for Smart Cards in seven months. Nevertheless, smart cards have not taken off in the United States, compared to Europe and Asia.

"Cards, until very recently, did not have the ability to be programmed," Dusche said. "They have to be very small -- 5 millimeter by 5 millimeter for the chip -- and that chip didn't allow for writing programs," he said.

Dusche pointed to the smart cards issued to Microsoft employees for network and security access. Used for functions such as paying for cafeteria food and building access, the cards sport 64KB memory and an 8-bit microprocessor, roughly the same as the first generation of PCs, Dusche said. In January, Microsoft employees will be issued health-care smart cards.

Still, Microsoft's smart-card technology is only now coming into focus. Ballmer acknowledged that the smart-card functionality included in Microsoft WebTV set-top boxes is rarely used.

The next version of Windows for Smart Cards, code-named Lightning and expected in nine months, will focus on payment applications and be compatible with more chip types, Microsoft officials said. The following version, Thunder, will be available six to 12 months after Lightning, will support Visual Basic 7.0, and will begin 32-bit support.

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