A billion JavaCards later, Sun sets its sights on e-passports

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2005, 12:00am

SUN MICROSYSTEMS celebrated 10 years of its Java programming language last month with the announcement that its production of JavaCards - smart cards that can be programmed with Java - had reached 1 billion units.

Sun chief executive Scott McNealy invited Olivier Piou - the chief executive of Axalto, the largest maker of smart cards in the world, according to some analysts - to join him on stage during the celebrations.

Mr Piou explained how some of the initiative for JavaCards began with a conversation he had with James Gosling, the Sun engineer who is credited with creating Java.

'We were having 'religious' discussions about subsets of Java. We did not need a keyboard, or sophisticated graphics, etc,' he said. Technology experts often call any discussions that deal with the fundamentals 'religious'.

The kind of programming needed in a smart card is fairly minimalist. It must be able to read data, do some number crunching for security purposes and run fairly simple programs that manipulate small chunks of data.

What a smart card does not need to do is read data entered on a keyboard or draw a jet aircraft on a high-resolution screen. In fact, there are many things it does not need to do, so Mr Piou talked to Mr Gosling about a 'subset' that would fit in the much smaller space of a smart card.

A few years later, the company had produced a billion JavaCards. Mr Piou was asked how long it would take to reach the 2 billion milestone. 'Within three years, I am sure,' he said.

JavaCard's advantage over other technologies, notably Multos cards which are used for the Hong Kong Smart ID Card, is that it can run a number of applications. A recent Gartner report said that the market would be dominated by JavaCards, but Multos would not disappear. It has a high level of security so some people will want it, but Gartner believes the security is overdone. Even the US Department of Defence has opted for a JavaCard.

But Mr Piou is quite happy with the Java technology. He is looking to Asia as well. 'We have several operations in Asia and I go there quite often,' he said.

He said the next step would be Java-enabled e-passports, soon to be mandatory in some jurisdictions. When one considers the security issues surrounding travel these days, it is hardly surprising. The big difference between an ID card and a passport, however, is that the passport is intended for use across international boundaries.

The flexibility of the Java language may be just the ticket to enable that to happen.