If the experts have got it right, there should be a lot of money swilling around in the IT solution industry's coffers over the next few years. Subscribers to the Armageddon school of thought doubtless look forward to the year 2000 and the windfall that programs falling victim to the great date crash fiasco should bring.
Similarly, those with a more positive outlook will salivate over the revenues that Internet and intranet technology might spawn in a new era of online, interactive communication.
But there is also another possible pot of gold at the end of the millennium rainbow - and it is one which application developers, especially those working through the reseller channel, are in grave danger of overlooking.
In short, smart cards could be the key to the future of the Internet, and at the heart of a business which experts believe could generate $200 billion in revenues by the time the UK's monster Ferris wheel and the Greenwich megadome are pulling in new age revellers.
Just recently, at a conference in Eschende, Holland, Malcolm Franks, the UK-based general manager for smart card services and strategy at IBM, was preoccupied with the opportunities presented by the confluence of Internet and smart card technologies. Clearly for IBM the issue was about setting open standards for smart cards, unlike Mondex in the UK, which some would say has stolen a march on IBM. The Mondex technology was developed with National Westminster and Midland banks and remains proprietary.
Franks revealed that IBM was working with the likes of American Express and American Airlines so that, for example, business travellers can use a single smart card as the basis for everything from hotel reservations and car hire, through to an electronic wallet and perhaps even as a surrogate passport. All the data it contains will be very personal, very secure, reprogrammable and, more importantly, updatable over the Internet.
All that is needed is to place the card in one of the many reader devices, and, hey presto, you have instant dialogue with computers at the other end, whether for bank accounts, theatre bookings or government identity records.
More pertinent to the Eschende conference, though, was the revelation that IBM's smart card technology was now being rolled out across Dutch universities. This involved the issuing of some 85,000 cards in a test project hailed as the largest of its kind in Europe, if not the world.
Much of the roll-out was in the suburb of Twente where students, many of them taking IT-related degrees, were ideal guinea pigs. They used smart cards across the Internet to verify their academic records, receive authorisation for software development work, arrange dates, and download cash from their banks.
And that was just for starters. Their IBM smart card was also a universal pass for libraries, public transport, vending machines and for gaining access to restricted campus areas.
Such was the enthusiasm for the project that IBM offered the prize of a free notebook for the student who devised the best computer program integrating smart cards with the Internet.
The winner - perhaps not surprisingly for Holland - devised an application that drove a beer pump in the student bar, paid for the cost of the drink via the Internet, and had it served ready and waiting minutes before he turned up.
But it's in building such interfaces that opportunity now knocks for a legion of professional programmers - and especially for value-added resellers. Smart card-cum-Internet application links could soon be massively in demand, whether they are used to access healthcare databases, research indexes, apply for loans or for virtual shopping.
Of course, much of this can already be done using the old magnetic strip cards for identification and purchasing needs. But the important distinction is that the smart card can be programmed not just to hold personal information, but to contain miniature applications. These might be for any purpose, from driving a remote beer pump to downloading of cash from the bank.
Once harnessed to the power of the Internet, the opportunities to use the smart card in everyday life are endless.
That, in turn, means new opportunities to build programs, or integrate the technology with other computers. And on the hardware side, the need to install reader devices should also prove a valuable earner for the channel.
As with an ordinary PC, IBM's card, known as the Multi Function Card, has its own, open operating system built into the Rom with a root and sub-directory structure similar to Dos.
The card's CPU has gold-coloured contact points which are brought to life as soon as the sliver of plastic is inserted into a reader.
Like the operating system, the chip's communication protocols comply with open, International Organisation for Standardisation standards, and security is governed by cryptographic signatures - digital keys that unlock only once the card and, say, a bank's online computer agree the outcome calculation of a randomly generated number.
This is the quality that makes the smart card ideal for use across the Internet or any other network, guaranteeing as it does the identity of the holder as well as the integrity of any transactions.
For the professional programmer hoping to build suitable applications, all that is needed is a Windows machine, access to IBM's smart card Class library and the ability to write in C++.
Franks says: 'The smart card will revolutionise business, challenging existing relationships between organisations and their customers and - with the Internet - throwing up a whole host of new services.'
He reveals that, in the course of the Twente project, IBM had to consider how the smart card would interact with such mundane devices as Pepsi vending machines, but for more sophisticated applications - especially those involving the Internet - development opportunities are 'incredible'.
Back in the UK, Franks admits that it is still early days for IBM to be entering into serious dialogue because of the need to establish universal standards first.
'We'll certainly be encouraging partners to develop application interfaces, but the most important task for the moment is to get agreement on all the diverse protocols you find in the telecoms, travel and finance industries,' he says.
'Smart card technology is still in its infancy, much like PC technology was 15 or so years ago. But when smart cards take off, the business opportunities will be phenomenal.'
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