From his lab, deep within the 333 Market Street tower in San Francisco, Bipin Sahni is dreaming up Web 2.0 applications for Wells Fargo's customers.
Tablets. Voice Commands. Gesture technology that opens up a spreadsheet with a wave of a hand.
Whatever big business customers will someday use to access cash management tools from Wells' online portal for corporates, Sahni must envision first.
He is in charge of emerging technologies for Wells' Wholesale Service Group, and leads a small team focused on research and development.
For corporates, these portals - websites that allow executives to manage many accounts, and payments, at once - are what separate banks from one another.
And, make no mistake, business customers, like everyone else, want it all at a click.
"Things are a little simpler on the consumer side, from an experience point of view, because you are doing eight or nine things," says Sahni. But with corporate users, "you see a portal that supports over 60 applications and 65 lines of business."
Wells is in preliminary tests of gesture recognition technology, which could potentially be used to allow business customers to navigate their online banking tasks through hand movements.
The bank is farther along with an upgrade of its Commercial Electronic Office portal for the iPad.
Though business executives can view the CEO portal on the iPad now, things don't display the same way they do in the browser of a desktop, or laptop.
But with the upcoming change, drop-down menus and the look of the CEO applications will be better formatted to the smaller screens of Apple's iPad.
New applications, such as charts and graphs, will appear as a customer tips the iPad from one side to the other.
Sahni and his team have been working on the improvements for more than two years - since Apple first announced its iPad.
The declining profitability of credit and debit cards, the impact of the overall malaise on consumer spending, and shrinking revenue, among other contributing factors, have created a laser focus on corporates, says Celent senior analyst Gareth Lodge.
He says all the improvements in corporate portals boil down to a simple goal. "It's all about the management of payments," he says. "It's about making sure that's as efficient as possible."
That coupled with extra room banks are now finding on their balance sheets, now that the economy seems to be getting brighter, is causing those companies to spend a little more on technology.
"Banks are now having to look at their longer term ledger, because it's simply becoming much too expensive, and risky, to keep trying to maintain themselves through short term patches," says Lee Kidder, a practice director at the CCG Catalyst Consulting Group.
For instance, some banks that recently acquired others with separate corporate portal systems "would, instead of integrating the two systems, simply run a wire from one system to another and put a little software mask [over the gap] and try to integrate the two," he says.
Credit card companies such as American Express, are also building better tools for businesses to use.
AMEX "PAYVES" THE WAY
In June, Amex announced the launch of a new digital service, called Payve, that streamlines the processing of multiple types of payment methods.
The platform gives large and midsize businesses the option to send checks, make ACH payments and route international wire transfers, among other payment types, to vendors.