How can you tell when a technology has come of age? Microsoft is suddenly closing in like a piranha, ready for the kill. Take smart cards. Here is a concept that has been around since 1974 when a Parisian, Roland Moreno, thought of putting a microchip on a ring and loading it with currency. It was an idea that did not go far at the time because Moreno held the patents and - being French - liked to say 'non' to anyone and everything, thus hindering further development. But then the banks, ever keen to promote a cashless society if only to dispense with the inconvenience of high street-staff, realised such electronic purses could be the magic answer to their dreams. IBM and a few other vendors woke up to the business potential and, suddenly, development of smart cards began in earnest. But there have been false starts along the way. The first experiment was in the mid 90s with Mondex in Swindon. Backed by NatWest and Midland, the cards and their gadgetry were liberally distributed, but met limited acceptance. Apart from a few crooks who realised that they might be able to phone an accomplice and illicitly download cash from Hong Kong, Mondex proved more trouble than it was worth for dealing with small cash transactions, its main raison d'etre. I should know. Immediately on its press launch, I used my Mondex to buy a pint in Swindon, an achievement I still reckon made me the first man in the world to use a smart card for beer. But it took almost 30 minutes to get served as the barmaid struggled to come to terms with the swipe machine. Others who tried to buy other small-change items had the same problems. Smart cards such as Mondex can be used to exchange higher cash denominations between users - but if banks and credit card issuers are cut out of the transaction, where is their commission? Now entering the fray is Microsoft. While the banks and credit card issuers now appear to be limiting the encryption capabilities within smart cards to mere user verification purposes, Microsoft obviously sees it as a new means to cash in on the Internet. Literally. Over the next few weeks, it is expected to introduce a toolkit that uses simple C++ and Visual Basic coding and allows smart cards to be configured for the latest Windows CE applications or to run existing ones on a minute scale. Early next year, toolkit support is also promised for the mobile GSM phone environment, to help bridge the gap between smart cards and SIM cards. Meanwhile, the smart card industry is believed to be growing at about 40 per cent a year, with the number of users likely to reach 900 million by 2001. What that means is a wealth of potential new business, from firms that want more secure means of hooking their mobile workers into the corporate network, to retailers that want to issue customers with loyalty or promotion cards - the opportunities are endless. In future, if it is a function that can be performed on a conventional Windows PC, smart cards can do it too. Just get coding, Lilliputian style.
Cotton seedling freezes to death as Chang'e-4 shuts down for the Moon's 14-day lunar night
Fortnite easily out-earns PUBG, Assassin's Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2 in 2018
Meteor showers as a service will be visible for about 100 kilometres in all directions
Saturn's rings only formed in the past 100 million years, suggests analysis of Cassini space probe data
New findings contradict conventional belief that Saturn's rings were formed along with the planet about 4.5 billion years ago