For the Underbanked, Online Banking Comes to Tablets

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The Kindle Fire isn't as capable as the iPad and it isn't as connected as a smartphone — but its mix of price and features makes it extremely well suited to serve the underbanked.

The prepaid card marketer Plastyc of New York is expected to announce an app for the Kindle Fire, Amazon's $200 WiFi-only tablet, this week. Part of the reason for Plastyc's focus on the Kindle is that the iPad, which starts at $400 (or $500 for the latest version), is out of the price range of many prepaid card users.

"Our audience tends to be lower-income … not everybody can afford an iPad," says Patrice Peyret, Plastyc's chief executive. However, this audience has easy access to inexpensive smartphones that run Google's Android operating system, so they expect to be able to access their finances on the go.

Tablets like the iPad and the Kindle use variants of the iOS and Android software, which were originally designed for smartphones. These operating systems naturally lend themselves to a mobile experience, but WiFi tablets like the Kindle Fire aren't replacements for phones, Peyret says — they're replacements for desktop and laptop computers, even among the underbanked.

"It's really about online banking where online is no longer your PC but is a tablet," Peyret says. "This is maybe a very early first step … five to six to seven years down the road, laptops will be replaced largely by tablet computers."

Laptop users don't always have a dedicated data connection, he says. They seek out a WiFi connection when they need to bank online or perform other tasks on the Web. Tablet users are willing to jump through the same hoops to find a network connection, since carrying a tablet is still a lot easier than carrying a laptop from place to place.

Some mobile functions don't translate perfectly to WiFi-only devices, but the workarounds are straightforward and unobtrusive.

For example, Plastyc's mobile users have the ability to use a phone's GPS to locate nearby merchants that sell Green Dot's MoneyPaks, which can be used to reload prepaid card accounts. On a WiFi device like a tablet or a laptop computer, Plastyc simply asks for the user's ZIP code.

Most users did not frequently use the MoneyPak locator, so the extra step of typing a ZIP code does not add detract significantly from the app's ease of use, Peyret says.

It's easy to create an app for the Kindle Fire once a company already has an app for Android smartphones or tablets, says Alexei Miller, an executive vice president and partner at DataArt Solutions, the New York vendor that built Plastyc's Kindle Fire app.

"Because the Kindle Fire is basically [using] a modified version of the Android [operating system], you wouldn't believe how little of an effort it is to release a Kindle Fire application once you have an Android application," Miller says. "It is remarkably inexpensive and not time-consuming at all."

This app took two to three weeks to adapt because of its complexity, but many Android apps could be adapted in "a couple of days," Miller says. Generally, most of the work is in adapting the Android app's graphics to better fit the Kindle's screen, he says.

For Plastyc, there were also features tied to security and connectivity that added to the work required.

Though the Kindle fire lacks a GPS or a connection to a carrier's network, it has some advantages over more expensive devices, Miller says. "The iPad is a superior machine … it is also a much more closed platform," he says. Even the elements of Android that Amazon blocks, such as push notifications, have substitutes that programmers can use.

And many programmers are already starting to think of the tablet space as being more than just the iPad ecosystem, Miller says. "They're trying to ride the next wave, which is HTML5," the latest version of the HTML markup language used for creating Web pages. Some companies' iPad apps are just shells for an HTML5 application, which can be used on multiple devices. These companies "develop for an iPad but they do not develop an Apple app," he says.

The Kindle Fire is also boosted by Amazon.com's influence, says Nicole Sturgill, a research director at TowerGroup. Amazon.com can attract more developer attention to the Kindle Fire than the creators of other Android-based tablets can.

Banks should consider developing for the Kindle Fire despite its limitations, Sturgill says.

"Does it operate as well as an iPad? Probably not," she says. "There's a lot of things a Kindle Fire doesn't have, but it's so much cheaper that it democratizes the tablet."

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Comments (1)
Kindle Fire will still be a richer banking experience than 2nd generation cell phones. The challenge is not only building the app -- which you say is easy -- but also getting people to use it and promoting it via public relations, advertising and marketing.
Posted by Lisa LaMagna | Thursday, May 10 2012 at 5:12PM ET
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