CAN YOUR COMPUTER DOUBLE as an automated teller machine (ATM)--giving you access to cash whenever you need it? Well, sort of. The first step is widespread acceptance of "smart cards" such as the ones announced on Apr. 17 by Visa International and MasterCard International Inc. These "stored value" cards can hold electronic "cash" that is transferred over a network from a holder's account. Smart-card holders can then use the cash cards to pay for items at participating vendors equipped with smart-card readers.

Later this year, Visa and MasterCard will distribute 50,000 cards to New Yorkers, who will be able to start downloading "cash" onto a smart card from specially equipped ATMs.

SCM Microsystems, a maker of PC add-in cards in Los Gatos, Calif., is ready to take the system to the next step: letting you "refill" your cash card using your personal computer. SCM has announced SwapSmart, a $199 smart-card reader that fits in a PC Card (formerly known as PCMCIA) slot, the same slots found on almost every laptop for attaching peripherals such as modems. The idea, says Nicholas Efthymiou, SCM's vice-president for sales and marketing, is that such a device will let consumers with an appropriate home-banking connection transfer money from their bank accounts to the smart card using a home PC equipped with a SwapSmart reader. In the meantime, SCM is working to develop other applications, such as smart-card-based security systems.

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