COMDEX: New chip could kill third-party toner business

Hitachi Maxell is showing at Comdex, for the first time, the prototype of a chip that is being eyed by laser printer and copier makers as a way to stop customers from using third-party toner cartridges.

Hitachi Maxell is showing at Comdex, for the first time, the prototype of a chip that is being eyed by laser printer and copier makers as a way to stop customers from using third-party toner cartridges.

The new chip is a development of proximity smart cards currently on the market. These cards are already widely used in applications such as hotel door keys and telephone cards and simply need to be brought within a few millimeters of the reader for the data exchange to take place. No electrical contact is needed. Unlike current chips, which need loop antennas of around 5 centimeters in diameter embedded into the smart cards, the new chip has a self-contained antenna.

At just 2.3 mm square, the chips greatly cut down on the space needed for the device and also solve another problem. "One of the big problems with the current cards is the disconnection of the antenna at the point where it joins to the chip," said Masaaki China, manager of Hitachi Maxell's smart card projects. "We found that after one or two years in use, we begin to see problems with the cards. The Coil-on-Chip has an antenna of 47 turns etched onto the chip surface."

The smaller size means the technology can be used in a much greater number of applications, and top on Hitachi's list are laser printers and copiers. "If they include this reader board into the copy machine and this chip into the cartridge, they can control which cartridges are used," said Chino.

Internally, talks are already at an advanced stage regarding the use of the chip in the company's laser printers and copiers. Hitachi plans to build card readers into its new machines and embed the chips into its toner cartridges, making it possible for the printer to reject cartridges that don't carry the chip. This could kill the third-party toner business in Japan, where Hitachi has the ability to enforce such restrictions on users, but whether something similar could be done under US law is not clear at present, said Chino.

Nevertheless, Hitachi is already talking to several major US vendors regarding the technology, Chino divulged, although he declined to name the companies. Hitachi is also a major OEM supplier of laser printer and copier engines to companies including NEC, Brother Iand Minolta.

The chip has capacity for 108 bytes of information and supports a 32-bit key for use in security applications. Hitachi Maxell is also talking with Secom, a major Japanese security systems vendor, about using the new chip in access control systems, and has other uses in mind.

Chino said the new chip might also find its way into use as an antipiracy device for protection of CD- or DVD-based media. The lack of a chip embedded into the disk would result in the player refusing to accept it.

At Comdex, the company is also showing an application in which the chips are loaded with a URL and embedded into promotional material distributed by companies. When brought into proximity with a dedicated reader for personal computers, the company's Web site appears inside the browser running on the PC. While the current implementation -- requiring the use of a standalone reader -- makes it a little clunky, Chino said, Hitachi is in talks with several PC vendors regarding building the readers into computers. Talks are already under way with Sharp in this area.

Hitachi Maxell, in Tokyo, is at http://www.maxell.co.jp.

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