Java Card goes contactless

Contactless cards running the Java Card platform are available now

Sun Microsystems has increased the reach of its Java Card platform -- by about 10 centimeters. The company demonstrated a version of its Java Card operating system for contactless smart cards at the Cartes trade show near Paris this week, and said the new cards are now available worldwide.

Smart cards are used for applications including access control, banking, and mobile-phone subscriber identification. Typically the size of a credit card, they contain an embedded microprocessor with a secure operating system that can establish an encrypted connection with a card reader.

Most smart cards must be slotted into a reader in order to complete a transaction. Contactless smart cards, on the other hand, contain an embedded radio antenna, enabling them to draw power and communicate with readers at distances of up to 10 centimeters. Sun has now added software support for such contactless readers to its Java Card platform, an operating system for multiapplication smart cards.

While other operating systems and programming environments exist for smart cards, Sun bills the Java Card system as a familiar programming environment that allows applications to be deployed on cards supplied by different vendors.

Contactless cards running the Java Card platform are available now, the company said, while enhanced support for contactless cards should be included in version 2.2.2 of the Java Card specification, due for publication in the first half of next year.

Public transport is one area where contactless cards are useful, as passengers don't have to stop and insert their ticket into barriers. At the Cartes show, Sun partner Trusted Logic of Versailles, France, demonstrated a Java Card version of the Navigo contactless ticketing application used by the Paris public transport authority, RATP.

While Java has a reputation in some quarters for being slow, the demonstration shows that even on a low-power computing platform such as a smart card, it is plenty fast enough for transport applications, said Frédéric Bouchy, director of software development at Trusted Logic. As the card is passed in front of the reader, it takes just 100 milliseconds to exchange the six or seven pieces of information necessary to authorize access to the transport system, he said.

The transport authority won't be putting Java Cards into service straight away, though: Sun's cards support the ISO 14443-B contactless communications standard, but the readers at the entrances to all of Paris's metro stations were installed while that standard was still at the draft stage. As a consequence, they are incompatible with the final version, and require a software upgrade before they will recognize standards-compliant cards, according to RATP spokesman François Guillaume.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.