Comdex: Microsoft sees £1 smart cards

Microsoft plans to drive smart card pricing down so low that companies will see outlay as a minor point when considering implementation.

The software giant was demonstrating smart cards at its huge stand at Comdex, although it seemed that the technology was not attractive enough to lure many visitors, illustrating that the North American market is still mostly virgin turf compared to Europe.

"The government hasn't offered to help so we're going to have to build a common interest through standards," said Mike Dusche, product manager for Windows card at Microsoft. He added: "We have to cut the cost dramatically."

Microsoft is pushing the PCSC as that standard and expects rapidly falling prices as vendors line up behind it.

"Nobody builds a better smart card reader than anybody else so there's no reason why we can't get the cost down to $12 (£7) for the reader and $2 (£1.2) for the card," said Dusche. That would be radically less than today's price list which has readers at about $100 (£61) and cards at $15 (£9) and would encourage more PC vendors to incorporate drives in systems as per Microsoft's PC 99 blueprint.

Dusche said that cards will be multiple application so, for instance, they could be used for entering buildings or storing financial information, but added there will be one killer application.

"The driver in the US is going to be secure network log on" he said. "Corporates are driving the push for security. Today people are putting their passwords on a sticky note and putting it on the monitor."

Dusche said Microsoft is making good progress towards opening up the smart card world, having signed up several key staff from smart card experts like the JavaCard project and Schlumberger. A beta release of Microsoft's software developer kit for the Smart Cards for Windows operating system will be available in February and will be available fully by May. Merill Lynch will be a global beta test partner.

"Today smart cards is a billion card a year market," said Dusche. "That will quintuple within five years."