Bertrand du Castel was a true visionary, in both his technical leadership and the charm and wit he brought to scientific gatherings. From its inception, he was the outspoken champion of the Java Card platform. As one of its founders, his was an early voice for the Java Card Forum as it sought to lend credence to the use of mainstream computer system technology in the highly constrained world of “smart cards.” It is fitting that the JCF celebrate his life – his dedication, passion, belief and determination helped establish a new paradigm in the world of massively distributed, high security computer architectures. However, his vision extended beyond the technical. He recognized that we all live in the progression of history; and, he had a knack for recognizing episodes of historic importance, from the profound to the seemingly mundane.
Bertrand graduated from the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, where he completed his PhD in Theoretical Computer Science with a focus on linguistics. He started his career at IBM before moving to Schlumberger in the late 1970s. At that time, the company was often touted as the “IBM of the oil patch” in an era of profound and pervasive change in the oil and gas industry.
In the mid-1990’s, Bertrand was selected to lead a new project to develop a “post-issuance, programmable” smart card. This would allow what were typically thought of as “tokens” to become highly personal and highly portable computers in their own right. Few besides Bertrand appreciated that this somewhat speculative company venture would change the entire industry. To ensure the success of the project, he soon had to prove his leadership skills – drawing together the best technical minds, uniting internal departments to work together, maintaining management’s belief in the final outcome, and opening up the development work to the industry at large; surely the most controversial aspect of the process.
As it emerged that ultimate success would require all smart card competitors to have access to the new non-proprietary technology licensed from Sun Microsystems, Bertrand understood that the industry as a whole had to work together, and in close concert with Sun Microsystems.
So, in a truly prescient move, just days after the first Java Card was produced by Schlumberger, the Java Card Forum was formed on 12th February 1997. Bertrand served as the Chair of the Technical Committee and was instrumental in driving forward each new version of the Java Card platform specification: 2.1 in 1999 (interoperable file format), 2.2.2 in 2006 (ETSI and contactless) – and although he left the Forum in 2006, his vision of a connected card led to the release of Java Card 3.0 in 2008.
In 2005, Bertrand’s contribution to the smart card industry was formally recognised when Card Technology Magazine (the main publication of the smart card industry in its day) named him Visionary of the Year and ran a major article about his work.
Bertrand was a fiercely driven man, who led from the front and never shied away from controversy. Discussions within the Java Card Forum could be intense, but progress was always made. He was a character who injected life into the JCF meetings and, beyond the technical world, he relished the opportunity to be part of the passing history in which we all live. Bertrand also had a love of travel and a profound sense of adventure, exemplified by the time he rode a bus for a couple of days and nights on a trip from Austin to central Mexico to see the destination of the migration of millions of Monarch butterflies from all across North America.
Bertrand loved soccer, both watching and playing the game. He organized weekly “pick up” soccer games in a dusty field at the Schlumberger facility in Austin and in 1998 he immediately vetoed scheduling a JCF meeting during the World Cup Finals at the Stade de France in Paris. One simply did not over schedule such a day.
Bertrand’s esoteric style and deep insights into art, literature and language delighted those in the audience for the myriad presentations and publications in which he sprinkled in these references. There are those that still fondly remember his presentation on “Smart Cards and the Washing Machine.” In latter years, he delved deeply into the realm of neuro-science and the human brain, publishing a peer-reviewed paper in a well-recognized neuroscience journal. He was a complex, charismatic and brilliant man who will be sadly missed – but whose Java Card legacy will continue to evolve and provide secure solutions for many years to come.
The term “visionary” has been tossed around a lot over the years, but for Bertrand du Castel, the title fit.
He saw things not the way they are but the way they could be. And he would persuade, cajole, urge and exhort others to see the possibilities, as well.
A true enabler of innovation–including the creation of the hugely successful Java Card platform for the smart card industry–Bertrand had a knack for consensus building as he convinced others to adopt his vision. If they resisted, he used persistence, an abundant wit and his quirky charm to overcome their reservations.
He will be sorely missed.
Dan Balaban is a journalist and author of a 2005 profile on Bertrand du Castel, “Keeping an Eye on the Future,” in Card Technology magazine.
Many thanks to Tim Jurgensen and Bertrand’s family for their contributions to this feature.
All photos re-printed with kind permission from Will van Overbeek, www.willvano.com
• Personal History of the Java Card; 2009, Bertrand du Castel
• Keeping an Eye on the Future; 2005, Dan Balaban for Card Technology
• Wikipedia entry for Bertrand du Castel