In the world of computers, it is not often that you get to shake hands with the inventor of a technology. However, last week, at the Smart Card '97 exhibition at London's Olympia, Roland Moreno, who first embedded silicon chips in credit card-sized pieces of plastic back in September 1974, was there for all to embrace.

Strangely, though, such enthusiasm would have been rather out of place. The smart card industry, now in its 10th year, has always had a problem maintaining its momentum. But the exhibition was in optimistic mood. Manufacturers are convinced that by the turn of the millennium miniature microprocessors will have found their way into everyone's lives.

One area where confidence has already proved itself is in telecommunications. If you have a digital mobile phone, you will perhaps be an unwitting user of a smart card. Smaller versions of their credit card-sized brothers are to be found in the backs of the telephone, carrying the details of the user. The implications for security and as a guard against theft are obvious, but it also means that you could use the phone of a friend or colleague under your own ID, simply by swapping the mini-card around.

A more advanced security application is soon to emerge in airports. Drawing on biometric identification, which scans the palm of your hand, boarding cards with an embedded chip to store the palm-print image are to be used to increase security at the weak point between check-in and boarding.

Anti-fraud applications are to roll out, too. It will not be long before a chip is embedded somewhere in your passport, for example. And smart cards will lie at the heart of the certification required in pay-TV systems, supporting the regulation laid out in the Oftel White Paper published last month.

Perhaps the best-publicised use of smart cards is as electronic purses. The Mondex and Olympic trials are to be followed up by a much larger pilot from the UK high street banks. Along with Visa and MasterCard, they have finally agreed an industry technology standard, referred to as UKIS, and will be pushing out hundreds of thousands of cards to the public in the second half of this year.

The acceptability of the technology has to a degree been compromised by the hackles it raises from civil liberties groups. They are worried about the implications of identity checks, which threaten to become ubiquitous. Whether society is prepared to live with such surveillance remains an open question.

Roland Moreno - the "fancy French engineer" as he was called - confessed to feeling that he had spent much of the last 20 years in IT solitude. But it would appear that his isolation is drawing to an end. The "lifestyle" smart card, which integrates into one chip all the aforementioned functions and a host of others besides, is now only just around the corner.

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