The Yawning Gap Between Smart Cards And Personal Computers

Logical access using smart cards and readers is growing, but it's not yet commonplace

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Instead, other projects could lead the way toward individual consumers using smart card readers embedded on devices other than personal computers. UK-based card issuer Barclaycard and British Sky Broadcasting have launched "SkyCard," a chip-based credit card that can be used on set-top digital television boxes that have a smart card slot. Users insert their cards and type in a personal identification number to pay for premium TV shows and to authenticate themselves for online banking.

Other observers say additional devices could reduce the need for readers built into PCs. Frederic Engel, a former marketing manager with U.S.-based smart card vendor ActivCard, points to USB tokens as an alternative.

Tokens are about as big as a house key and contain a chip similar to that on a smart card. The tokens plug directly into a computer's USB port, making installation relatively easy. Though the tokens don't require new hardware, they still need software drivers, like standalone smart card readers.

Engel says national ID projects, along with the push by banks-especially in the United Kingdom-for two-factor authentication online, will drive the need for readers. But he says they won't necessarily come embedded in PCs.

"I don't believe you will have on personal computers a reader for your national ID card," he says. Engel says it is more likely that cardholders will use their cards at kiosks in government buildings or insert the cards into terminals provided by government officials.

He predicts a push toward contactless readers to work with cards that need only be tapped on a reader, rather than inserted like a conventional contact smart card.

That will particularly be the case if more smart card functions, such as retail and transit-fare payments, are integrated into mobile phones carrying contactless smart card chips.

This is a big focus of backers of a technology called Near Field Communication, which uses a variant of the radio frequency system employed in contactless smart cards to allow PCs, mobile phones, television set-top boxes, payment terminals and other devices to communicate without wires. Embedding PCs with NFC chips is an important step for NFC, says Sour Chhor, general manager, identification infrastructure and services, for Netherlands-based Philips Semiconductors, one of NFC's main backers.

That would allow, for instance, a consumer to transfer a photo of her dog from her PC to her mobile phone just by holding the handset near the computer. However, among major PC manufacturers, only Sony and Samsung Electronics have joined the NFC Forum, which promotes the technology.

"There's a very big potential market" for NFC with PCs, Chhor says, especially as consumers become more used to wireless applications.

For now, though, it appears the main demand for embedded readers will come from big organizations buying new computers. Consumer demand for smart card readers, whether built-in to their PCs or plugged into USB ports, remains uncertain at best.