By Vijay Shah
Credit and debit cards have long been a standard form of payment that is quick, durable and usually reliable. They mean wallets or purses which are not chockfull of change, which are less cumbersome to carry around, and give immediate 24 hour access to the contents of your bank account. All that offered with minimal fuss and maximum convenience.
They also have limitations though. Most readers will know the feeling of losing their card after a busy night out or misplacing it in a taxi, and the frantic phone calls to the bank to cancel it before someone finds the errant fantastic plastic and drains out your hard-earned salary plus overdraft.
But tellingly, cards are just that….cards. A flat rectangular piece of plastic. Nowadays most cards are supplied with Chip & Pin technology that saves consumers on having to scramble for a pen to sign the umpteenth scrap of paper. Many newer card issues now come with a contactless payment system that enables small cost purchases without the necessity of punching in a PIN code.
Nevertheless to find out your balance or view transaction history requires a separate piece of technology, be it your laptop, mobile phone or the ATM cash dispenser outside Costcutters on a rainy Friday night. Mobile batteries always run low when you most need your phone, and cash dispensers, when they are not exasperatingly trying to be rare as hen’s teeth, inevitably either charge you an ‘arm and a leg’ just to withdraw the smallest amount, or eat your card and present the black screen of death as it makes a defiant last stand against spitting out yet another collection of £20 notes.
The major card manufacturers have naturally been aware of such a problem, which is why since last year they have unveiled prototypes of what could be the payment card of the near future.
The first two progenitors of this new breed have already made their way through the development stages. Their uniqueness lies in the fact that in addition to a traditional credit card format, they also incorporate LCD technology as can be in the number displays on watches and electronic children’s toys. Card producers hope these new cards will one day make searching the high street for a cash machine a thing of the past.
In the autumn of 2011 after a year of quality testing, Visa unveiled a European credit card that comes with its own inbuilt LCD facility. The CodeSure Matrix Display Card carries a 48×8 pixel wide simple display underneath the signature strip which shows a line of eight digits. Visa’s intention for the CodeSure project, according to technology commentator David Strom of ReadWrite Enterprise, was to facilitate an easy but secure form of payment at retail outlets for customers and merchants alike.
Available in debit, credit and pre-payment formats, the CodeSure card also boasts a small keypad with touchscreen-style interfacing which enables users to dial their security code and additionally access their ‘e-bank’. Visa itself states that the card “can also be used for services like eBanking, telephone banking, transactions signing and access to third party services.” Increasing volumes of card holders in the rapidly growing economies of countries such as India, China and Russia are also catered for, as Codesure has the capability of supporting alphabets other than Roman.
All cards issued under the CodeSure project contain a specially-designed internal battery intended to last three years, which is the normal duration of a payment card’s validity.
The card’s security is noteworthy through its ability to issue a single-use password or PIN to the card holder for use in making secure purchases, access of bank services and as a safety measure in identity verification should the card fall into the wrong hands.
Visa had developed the CodeSure project in tandem with electronics specialists possessing elaborate know-how in the field of display technology. NagraID Security provided the ultra-thin LCDs while Emue Technologies handled the digital security developments.
Not to be outdone, rival MasterCard brought out its own version of Visa’s ground-breaking e-card earlier this month. Despite lagging behind for over a year, MasterCard is aiming to sweep the carpet from under Visa’s feet with its offering, which will be in general use as of January 2013.
The card, launched in the technology hub of Singapore, also carries an LCD and touchscreen keypad.
Like CodeSure, MasterCard’s new design also offers a one-time password facility which it hopes will do away with the need for a separate device to access online banking. Their LCD screen, according to an image of the prototype shown on the BBC News Technology website, only currently supports seven digits to CodeSure’s eight. Despite this small limitation however, MasterCard are planning big things with their new design. Devised in collaboration with Standard Chartered Bank, the cards aim to remove the need to send customers separate electronic tokens or logging-in devices. They may eventually update the LCD to show current balances, virtual bank statements and quantities of reward points such as AirMiles.
The new card technology is a fascinating development made feasible by smaller components and wafer-thin LCD outputs. For both Visa and MasterCard, as well as the banks and building societies who issue cards under their guidance, LCD cards present a new challenge in the war on the destructive threat of card fraud. These cards would be harder to clone as the specialist technology is not readily available to most criminal networks. They are also convenient for customers not only for everyday usage but to guard themselves against theft.
However there is a danger that the major card producers’ innovation may soon be rendered obsolete by mobile contact-free payment technology. With this recently-introduced means of purchasing, shoppers are able to use their smartphones just like a card. This could not only sound the death knell for wallets packed full of cash, but ironically for plastic payments as well, as consumers lean towards greater convenience and convergence.
On a more mundane level, an LCD e-card would have to be both water- and scratchproof and stand up to less preventable wear and tear. The author’s own observations of his former Visa debit card noted the worn and scratched chip and hologram caused by thousands of swiping and insertion movements in the three years of its usage lifespan. The signature on the strip at the back had become faded to the point of illegibility.
The card’s security would also need to be updated and strengthened as cybercriminals become more familiar with the technology as its use spreads. Online banking has already been associated with the scourge of ‘phishing’ scam emails and itinerant hackers. Sophisticated criminals mean payment providers offering sophisticated approaches to negate them.
Overall CodeSure and MasterCard’s answer to it are good ideas with good intentions, but the time for this sort of device has long passed and it may be only be a flash in the pan. There is the real likelihood of such technology being a short-lived gimmick whose first flight of success may well be cut short. Growing numbers of people are cutting up their last credit card and relying solely on their smartphone for common purchases. In five years from now, the e-card could well have missed the boat entirely.
SOURCES & IMAGE CREDITS
“New Visa Credit Card Comes With Its Own LCD” – David Strom, ReadWrite Enterprise/SAY Media, Inc. LINK
“New Mastercard has LCD screen and keyboard” – BBC News Technology LINK
“The interest-free credit card trap snaring unwitting borrowers” – Jill Insley, The Observer & The Guardian. Only Photograph used (Connors via The Observer). LINK