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French train tickets go USB

We don't need no stinkin' ISO7816

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The French National Railway Company is trialling contactless tickets with USB connections, replacing the ubiquitous ISO7816 for online top-ups and data storage.

The trial, which involves 1,000 tickets, is to start in the autumn in four as-yet-undisclosed regions of France, reports the RFID Journal. SNCF already uses contactless tickets, so no additional infrastructure will be needed to support the new USB-equipped versions, though new servers will offer online topping up of tickets.

The tickets, termed "Smart Objects" to distinguish from "Smart Cards", are coming from wireless start-up Neowave, and have moved away from the traditional credit-card format to accommodate a full-sized USB plug. That change also allows them to squeeze in up to 4GB of memory as well as the ISO1443 RFID circuits needed to work with the existing contactless infrastructure.

Companies have been trying to get their smart cards connected to home computers for decades. American Express even tried handing out free smart card readers to customers for a while, so they could be used to securely authorise transactions - using the PC as a host through which to create a secure connection between the processor on the card and the issuing bank. But such efforts have been hampered by technical support issues and customer reluctance.

Fitting a USB connection would seem to deal with many of the problems - assuming the connection can be made as secure as a traditional ISO7816 connection (ISO7816 is the contact pattern common to chip-based credit cards, and GSM SIMs), but the size presents a problem. A flattened connection can be squeezed onto a fat card (about 2mm), as used by various companies for promotional material, but those are quite fragile and won't survive being shoved into a wallet.

Neowave reckons their Smart Objects can be dropped into a wallet or purse - but at 8mm thick they're going to leave an unsightly bulge in most wallets, and are more suited to a keyring than a back pocket.

The convenience of being able to plug your card into a PC might be worth the additional bulk, but it's going to be a while before USB replaces the ISO7816, which is a relief for anyone who has the pattern tattooed, say on the back of their left hand. ®

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