Details are now beginning to emerge of what appears to have been one of the most under-exposed strings to AT&T Co’s bow contactless Smart Card technology, traditionally considered to be the exclusive domain of the UK’s GEC Plc. Although a late starter by French – and other rival developers’ – standards, the New Jersey-based telecommunications giant traces its entry into the field back to 1981, when it applied for the first of an eventual six Smart Card patents. Seven years later, the company offers what it describes as family of 8-bit cards distinguishing feature being the number of Kbytes of EEPROM or erasable memory – and has tested the cards in a range of customer-specific but commercially-based applications. Each version makes use of inductive coupling to power the card, and capacitive coupling – the term used to describe the transmission of electrical energy via static antennae – to transfer data, with project manager Joe Griffin claiming transfer rates in the 19,200 bits-per-second region. Similarly, compatibility across a range of hardware, multi-user and multi-tasking claims are founded upon what Griffin describes as the card’s in-built Unix-like operating system. Unsurprisingly, the first of the company’s Smart Card trials involved the use of E – for experimental telephone cards, which were issued in 1987 to 1,000 US-trotting executives. The cards – each containing 8,000 binary digits or 1Kb of EEPROM – were pre-programmed with a customised selection of frequently used telephone numbers – a feature already offered to some AT&T phone card holders – and a specified credit limit. When used in conjunction with so-called Smart Phones, now installed at 30 major US airports, the cards were found to simplify and speed up dialling procedures, and met with a very favourable response.
Blood, grease and wear and tear A second application for the card has been provided in the shape of an – unspecified – car company, which has been piloting the card as a smart log for storing up-to-the minute maintenance records. AT&T believes that eventually the card could be used by companies within the automotive market as a kind of smart key, ensuring accountability, and – thanks to the inclusion of pass words, speed restrictions, and medical details – theft protection, driver safety, and driver assistance. Meanwhile, the company predicts an application announcement in conjunction with a major medical institution within the next couple of months, and is preparing to present its case to the US Army, tipped to release a bid request for the Individual Card Record or ICR dog tag contract very shortly. The AT&T Smart Card, offering in this instance up to 10Kb of EEPROM, would, argues Griffin, offer distinct advantages over traditional electrical contact rivals, where blood, grease and general army wear-and-tear could interfere with contacts and render the cards useless. AT&T also has plans to license the card to other companies, and recently signed an agreement with Florida-based Codercard, which plans to use the card as the basis of a computer security application. To date, the company has failed to penetrate the vital financial services sector of the market, and appears to have devoted more energy to developing customer-based applications than employing aggressive marketing techniques. For his part, however, Griffin believes the card’s major selling points will prove to be its unique multiple applications features and its data transfer rate; the traditional Smart Card – such as Bull’s CP8 – is like a steam engine compared to our gas turbine, he concludes with pride.