NCs, smartcards and Java converge at Comdex

Java's future as the basis of smartcard applications has moved closer at the Comdex show in Atalanta, where leading NC makers have joined smartcard vendors Schlumberger and Gemplus in evangelising Java-based cards the way forward for both smartcards and NC devices.

The potential for Java on smartcards to open up a range of new applications moved closer to reality here at spring Comdex this week as network computer manufacturers showed, or promised, smartcard support on NCs.

Network Computing Devices announced that smartcard readers from Schlumberger Electronic Transactions and Gemplus can be attached to its Explora and HMX NCs. At the show, Gemplus demonstrated Java-based smartcard authentication on the NCs.

Meanwhile, HDS Network Systems said at the show that its @workstation NC will support smartcards, although it did not demonstrate this capability.

In addition, IBM's NetStation NC will gain the ability to read smartcards by the end of this year, confirmed an IBM employee demonstrating the device at the company's booth.

Schlumberger also mounted a large exhibit at Comdex, evangelising a technology that has gained far more acceptance in Europe than it has in the US. The company was also showing off the first JavaCard development kit.

The Java Card API, a specialised interface that allows conforming Java applications to run on a wide variety of smartcards, was announced last October by Sun Microsystems Inc. This allows more developers to write applications for the tiny devices, using a more natural programming language, according to observers. Prior to this development, a very small community of smartcard applications programmers has been writing essentially in assembly language specific to each smartcard.

In the smartcard industry, "Java's the thing that everyone's all excited about," says Jonathan Adams, product marketing manager at Schlumberger. "It allows you to move logic onto the card, and away from the terminal."

All NCs will eventually have smartcard readers built in, according to Harry Fenik, vice president of market research firm Zona Research. Zona's view of NCs is that they will be pervasive, and encompass a wide range of network-attached devices. Everything from kitchen appliances to telephones is a candidate to be an NC, Fenik says, "and, at the end of the day they will take their identity off smartcards."

At a Comdex panel discussion on NCs Monday, Steve Tirado of Sun Microsystems' Java Systems group said that Sun will develop a broad NC product range, down to a "downloadable web-top using smartcards."

The portable Web-top is a particularly interesting application for smartcards, Fenik agreed. Potentially, "I can go to a kiosk at an airport, put in a smartcard, and not only does my desktop come to me, but my company or I get billed."

"As smartcards get smarter and smarter, an NC may not really have a computer, it will take the computer off the smartcard. Finally, a portable PC I can really carry," Fenik said.

NCD, in Mountain View, California, can be reached on the Web at www.ncd.com/. HDS in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, can be reached at www.hds.com/. IBM's Network Station web site is at: http://www.internet.ibm.com/computers/networkstation/.

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