Hitachi Maxell is previewing at Comdex here a prototype chip being eyed by laser printer and copier makers as a way to stop customers from using third-party toner cartridges.
The new chip is a development of proximity smart cards already on the market. Smart cards are widely used in applications like hotel door keys and telephone cards, and can exchange data when brought within a few millimetres of a reader.
At just 2.3 mm square, the chips greatly cut down on the space needed for the devices that use them.
The chip supports a 32-bit key and may also find its way into an antipiracy device to protect CD- or DVD-based media. If a disk lacked the chip, the player would refuse to accept it.
Hitachi already plans to build card readers into the laser printers and copiers it markets in Japan. With the chips embedded into toner cartridges, printers can reject cartridges that don't carry the chip. This could kill the third-party toner business in Japan, but it's not clear whether US law would permit the same tactic, says Masaaki Chino, manager of Hitachi Maxell's smart card projects.
"If they include this reader board into the copy machine and this chip into the cartridge, they can control which cartridges are used," Chino says.
Nevertheless, Hitachi is already talking to several major US vendors regarding the technology, although Chino declined to name them. Hitachi supplies laser printer and copier engines to NEC, Brother and Minolta.
At Comdex, Hitachi is also showing an application in which the chips are loaded with a URL and embedded into vendors' promotional material. When the brochures are near a dedicated reader for personal computers, the company's Web site appears inside the browser running on the PC.
The current implementation, which requires a stand-alone reader, is a little clunky, Chino acknowledges. But Hitachi is talking with several PC vendors, including Sharp, about building the readers into computers.