Julian Matthews, Kuala Lumpur
MSC to Drive
In the last year Malaysias high-tech dreams were severely tested when the government grappled with a political and financial crisis that spooked investors and threatened to undermine its Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) project. The government maintains, despite major delays, that the project is still on track. One of the primary aims of the project is for companies within the corridor to build products and services for the new millennium.
Already several smaller companies linked to the project have begun to show promise. Local smartcard players TL Technology Research (M) Sdn Bhd and Iris Technologies (M) Sdn Bhd are developing the e-pass, an integrated multi-function smartcard touted as a wallet PC.
Designed by scientist Hartmut Hennige, the e-pass is small enough to fit into a wallet but combines the functions of a credit card, cash card, membership card, access control card, passport, medical and personal data card, and transport token card.
The e-pass is operated with touch-sensitive display screens which will show text or pictures, for example, of the holders signature or photograph. It will be powered by a polymer-based battery which will be rechargeable, when required, during a transaction process. TL Technology Research director Chas Yap said the e-pass card will employ ferroelectric random access memory (FRAM) technology, which are high performance, low power semiconductors that retain data even after power has been lost or removed. The technology is solely licensed by US-based Ramtron International Corp.
Hennige is the consultant to the project, and heads London-based E-pass International Ltd, which will receive a percentage of all e-pass license fees and royalty for each card made. Yap said a pilot project for the e-pass is expected to roll-out by the end of 1999 involving about 200,000 users in the UK.
The two Malaysian firms are associated companies involved in the manufacture of contact and contactless smartcards for various applications including passports, national identity cards, electronic visas, driving licenses, banking documents, airport baggage handling, and building access.
Yap believes that Malaysia can become a leading manufacturer, developer and exporter of smartcard technology, because smartcards are earmarked as a flagship application of the MSC project. The government espouses a single multi-purpose card for all its citizens.
He said that the single supercard per person is likely to materialize in the next century. Malaysia is expected to begin migrating to one card from its current two-card approach one for government applications, and another for commercial payment use by the year 2002 or 2003, said Yap.
Yap also believes that as the mobile phone matures into an integrated device for all forms of communications, e-purse applications will also be incorporated into it.
He also envisages chips that will be embedded in a variety of documents, not just smartcards, and will have various biometric verifications such as fingerprinting, palm printing, and voice-recognition.
He adds that smartcard developers are also likely to merge their disparate technologies, or open their architecture for third-party platform integration. Yap envisions his company moving up from smartcards to portable wearable computers by 2005.
Still a Long Way to Go
In the area of software, the Internet is likely to provide the impetus for a variety of new products and services, said Darryl Carlton, CEO of BizTone Inc, another MSC-status company. Carltons company is pioneering the delivery of Java-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications over the Internet.
The made-in-Malaysia BizTone suite of applications is given away free, but adopts a transaction-based business model, where third-party service providers will sell BizTone services to corporate customers then pay the company on a pay-per-use basis. This completely eliminates the need for on-site installation or the purchase of expensive software, said Carlton. Carlton believes all applications will be delivered over the Internet within the next five years.
The Internet is the glue that binds businesses together. It will be as ubiquitous as the telephone and all business processes will be automated to fully execute across those connections, he said.
Carlton, who heads a research team in Malaysia of 50, says the country has the talent and the legal and administrative infrastructure to become a leading developer and exporter of software and services.
What Malaysians lack is creating products for a global market, and the skills and international experience needed in product management and marketing, he said.
Over 200 local and foreign companies have signed onto the MSC project. Of these, 29 are regarded as global technology players including Microsoft Corp, Intel Corp, Sun Microsystems Inc, all of the US, Germanys Siemens AG and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp (NTT) of Japan. The government is hoping that these anchor companies will aid in incubating smaller companies to access financing, and share technical, marketing and management know-how well into the next millennium.