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Smart-card chips advance as market stalls

Posted: 12 Nov 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:smart cards? stmicroelectronics? page flash memory? mips technologies? philips semiconductors?

Hampered by the market saturation of prepaid telephone cards and by serious delays in Europe's 3G mobile-phone rollout, smart cards are fast losing their 1990s glow of consistent double-digit annual growth, according to attendees at the recently held Cartes 2002 smart-card conference in France.

Even sales for so-called multi-application smart cards, supposedly a key driver for advanced cards with bigger memories and more processing power, have been disappointing, said Jorgen Rasmussen, president of cards at SchlumbergerSema, a business unit of Schlumberger Ltd. "There was a lot of hype in multi-application cards," he said, acknowledging that making a business case for them has been hard.

Card vendors and semiconductor companies that supply smart-card chips, however, showed off further advances in their technologies here. STMicroelectronics unveiled a new Page Flash memory technology for higher-density smart cards, and MIPS Technologies Inc. introduced a secure, licensable 32-bit core, called MIPS32 4KSd, designed for secure smart cards.

Separately, in a move to trigger demand for secure PCs, NEC Computers Int., Europe's home-PC market leader, said it will integrate the Embassy chip from Wave Systems Corp. into a computer for the home market.

Karsten Ottenberg, SVP of Philips Semiconductors and general manger of business unit identification, claimed that big trends in the market such as growth in dual-interface (contact and contactless) smart cards and the strong move for an open infrastructure show no signs of abating. "It is true that multi-application cards are not picking up as fast as some of us [had] hoped, but the fact that a common point of service is missing is a bigger issue," Ottenberg said. The industry must build a common infrastructure where "an application [on a smart card] becomes executable in every consumer device."

Although still in development, the recent program between Sony Corp. and Philips to define a new superset of near-field radio communication technology, called NFC, is a good example of how to advance that cause, he added. The two consumer electronics giants see NFC as a common interface for contactless smart cards that is capable of talking to two diverging protocols - Sony's Felica and Philips' Mifare.

Reaching farther

Going beyond current GSM mobile-phone and banking markets, the smart-card industry is now casting an eye on the home entertainment market. Asked what is next, Rasmussen cited "digital rights management, home entertainment, multimedia applications, Wi-Fi with smart-card security, 3G mobile messaging, electronic legal signature, and digital authentication" as logical places to extend the reach of smart cards.

"We are looking for multimedia applications to which our smart cards can bring security," explained Bruno Blanchard, Microsoft program manager at SchlumbergerSema. At Cartes 2002, Schlumberger demonstrated its .Net Card technology, a smart-card platform that allows developers to build secure links between different types of multimedia devices and applications based on Microsoft Corp.'s Common Language Infrastructure. By offering its smart-card expertise, Schlumberger is hoping to work with the software titan to extend Microsoft's .Net initiative to smart card-based products.

Also looking homeward, NEC Electronics announced a partnership with Wave Systems, developer of a secure e-commerce chip for smart-card readers. NEC will become the first PC company to integrate the Embassy chip into a smart-card reader attached to a home PC. The resulting trusted computer will "encrypt and protect any binary file," offering encrypted e-mail, smart-card applications based on the European Union's secure smart-card reader specifications, called Financial Reader, and a secure digital wallet, said Steven Sprague, Wave Systems' president and CEO. "It also keeps passwords and IDs securely stored in the Embassy chip or on a smart card," he added.

While the Embassy-equipped smart-card reader will initially connect to a PC via the Universal Serial Bus, NEC said it plans to integrate the reader into a keyboard by Q1 next year.

Memory evolution

On the memory front, meanwhile, ST announced at the conference its patented Page Flash, a high-performance Flash memory technology that the company claims will remove the need for EEPROM in smart-card chips with dense memories. Page Flash offers the same fast programming time as standard Flash but also allows individual 32-bit data words to be erased in a few milliseconds.

Defining three key characteristics of smart cards as "portability, security and storage," noted Maurizio Felici, STMicroelectronics' group VP for memory products. He also added that the evolution of programmable non-volatile memory is inevitable for the advancement of smart cards with higher memory density.

Smart cards today consist of a microcontroller, ROM to hold an OS, EEPROM for application-oriented services and RAM to speed up service operations. But ST does away with the EEPROM by combining Page Flash and standard Flash memory with ST's proprietary 32-bit SmartJ microprocessor. The "demonstrator" chip that ST demonstrated at Cartes 2002 integrates the ST22 processor; 1MB of Flash memory (768KB of user Flash for storing program code and 256KB of Page Flash memory that replaces EEPROM); 128KB of user ROM to hold fixed routine libraries; and RAM. The chip is produced using an 0.185m process technology.

Broadly used in smart-card ICs, EEPROM is particularly useful because of its fast program/erase speeds and its ability to alter a single data byte without affecting any other data stored. However, ST believes that EEPROM is reaching its scalability limits, particularly for smart-card devices built in 0.135m technology and beyond.

The relatively high voltage (18V) required for EEPROM during the write process makes it "increasingly difficult to design devices that can withstand 18V," Felici said, since each new technology generation reduces the size of the transistors used to make the memory. In Felici's view, EEPROM will continue to be useful for lower-density smart cards, but Flash - especially the combination of standard and Page Flash - is "the choice for higher-density smart cards."

By keeping the design for Page Flash "simple," we made no changes in the process technology," said Felici. Thus, standard and Page Flash can be mixed on the same silicon chip at no additional cost and without any modification to the usual Flash-manufacturing process, he claimed. ST plans to make the demonstrator available for customer evaluations in Q1 next year. Felici expects volume production to start at the end of next year.

However, not everyone sees Page Flash as the Holy Grail for smaller-geometry smart-card chips. For one, Philips Semiconductors' Ottenberg sees no need to replace EEPROM on the company's new-generation chips. By developing a new process technology, Philips has begun producing a 0.185m -based smart-card chip integrating Flash and EEPROM - two physically different memory types - on the same silicon. The company's previous smart-card IC was built in a 0.355m process.

Non-volatile alternative

Both ST and Philips, however, agree on the need for alternative non-volatile memory for future smart cards. Searching for the ideal technology - one with lower power consumption and faster write times than traditional EEPROM - ST is betting big on ferroelectric RAM (FRAM) for contactless smart-card chips. ST recently partnered with Fujitsu Ltd, aiming to develop the industry's first contactless smart-card IC that uses FRAM and ROM, but no standard RAM.

Integrating 1.5KB of FRAM with ST's 8-bit microcontroller-based ST19 smart-card platform, together with an on-board library of certified cryptographic algorithms, the jointly developed FRAM-based smart-card ICs will be commercially available "a year from now," Felici said.

Felici acknowledged that FRAM-based smart-card ICs would cost much more than the current generation based on EEPROM, but argued that a tenfold gain in speed and 10x lower power consumption "could justify a market."

Meanwhile, Philips' Ottenberg noted that Philips is leaning toward magnetic RAM rather than FRAM as an alternative to EEPROM. Philips Research Laboratories has worked on both MRAM and FRAM, but "we are keeping high hopes for MRAM technology brought in by Motorola" for the joint ST, Motorola and Philips semiconductor research project in Crolles, France, Ottenberg said.

- Junko Yoshida

EE Times

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