Made-to-order Web just card swipe away

Membership: Card readers connect customers to such features as music and film.

March 13, 2003|By Stanley A. Miller II | Stanley A. Miller II,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Smart-card technology is commonly used in high-tech IDs, transit passes, credit cards and as the portable personas of advanced mobile phones.

Now a company in the United Kingdom called Internet plc is moving the technology into online entertainment, using smart cards and computer-connected card readers to give users access to certain Web sites. These sites have exclusive online content, the company says, giving music and movie fans an enticing reason to tinker with the technology.

Steven Landau, president and chief executive officer of Internet plc, says smart cards could enhance several forms of online entertainment, from distributing digital music to acting as authenticating IDs for people playing online computer games.

"Imagine where for $20 you can buy a card that for three months gives you the ability to get first shot at front row seats at a concert, songs before they are released, online chats with the celebrities. ... That is compelling," Landau said. "We believe that if you can take subscriptions or pay-per-view or exclusive content that is demanded by a consumer ... that people will pay for it."

The system could help companies make money on the Net by tying smart cards to members-only online areas while making them accessible to people who don't want to hand over their credit card numbers or personal information.

Smart cards - which have embedded computer chips of varying sophistication - are usually the same size as credit cards and colorfully emblazoned with the images of their theme.

For example, one Internet plc project using entertainment smart cards lets users watch behind-the-scenes footage and interviews about the latest Star Trek film.

Internet plc's smart-card system - which is called SmartFlash - requires a smart-card reader, which is a device that connects to a computer's USB port. After that is installed, users need only to slide a smart card into it, and then a Web browser launches and goes to the secure Web site.

Internet plc has designed a similar system for Disney's Treasure Planet that lets visitors play video games based on the animated movie. There is also a smart-card-powered site for fans of pop star Britney Spears.

Landau said his company will release other entertainment smart cards this year, and future projects will include cards for online music clubs, sports and games. A SmartFlash kit with a card and reader typically costs $24.95, and single smart cards are $7.95 each. But the readers comply with the international standards for credit and debit smart cards, so they're compatible with other systems.

"Our readers are usable with other smart cards, and our cards would be usable with other readers, with the right software," he said. "We have decided to use open-standard technologies."

More than 31 million smart cards were shipped in North America in the first half of last year, more than double the number shipped in the same period last year, according to the Smart Card Alliance, a nonprofit trade group.

They're used as IDs for employees in the U.S. Defense Department, electronic customer IDs in wireless phones and access controls to satellite television programming. Smart cards are also widely used in European credit cards, although they are not as common in the United States.

But extra services linked to smart card technology could lure more users. For example, late last month American Express began offering a new feature for its Blue smart credit cards called ID Keeper that lets members store information on the card's smart chip.

ID Keeper requires a PC and a smart card reader. Subscribers download and install software on their computers and on their Blue credit cards. Then when the card is inserted into the reader, users can access the bookmarks they've saved on it or bring up log-in information for each site.

Data are stored under such headings as "my profile" and "my favorites." It's then compressed and encrypted on the Blue card's chip, and users enter a code to unlock it. The ID Keeper software also helps users fill out online forms with a drag-and-drop function, so you can pull over your vital statistics from the Blue card instead of typing them in.

Besides ID Keeper, the Blue card's chip provides extra security for online shopping through a program called smart chip private payments. The system protects a customer's card information when shopping online by using a temporary, randomly generated transaction number each time instead of the real account number. The private payments security system is available through any Web site that accepts American Express.

"Although that random account is attached to a real card, the real account number is not sent over the Internet," said Tony Mitchell, a spokesman for American Express. "The random number is intended for a single use, so even if an online merchant stored the information and then someone accessed the merchant's system and got a hold of the number, they wouldn't be able to do anything with it. It's an additional layer of security."

Mitchell said that although the Blue card has drawn a wide range of customers for a variety of reasons, "people who are tech-savvy tend to be attracted to the card because of the smart chip.

"We intend for this to be an evolving card," he said. "And we will look for more applications that will be a value for our customers."

Internet plc's Web site is www.smart flashcard.com, and information for the American Express Blue card's ID Keeper is at www.americanexpress.com/idkeeper.

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