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Wells Fargo, Ally Bank See the Camera as Key to Mobile Banking

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A revolutionary as mobile banking has been, it's the camera that resides within smartphones that's lighting the fire underneath adoption drives at banks such as Wells Fargo (WFC) and Ally Bank.

"The camera is critical. If you look at the kinds of growth in mobile banking over the first couple of years, it was about the basics of mobile banking. But what's really exciting me and my team for the next couple of years is figuring out how to take advantage of the ability of the mobile device," says Brian Pearce, senior vice president and head of the retail mobile channel in the digital channels group at Wells Fargo.

Wells Fargo recently expanded the reach of its mobile remote deposit app to cover the entire country, following a successful pilot in which more than one million checks were deposited in a couple of states in six months. "Customers are really going for it, we've had great early adoption," says Pearce of mobile remote deposit capture, which is available on iPhone and Android smartphones.

Wells Fargo's mobile banking customer base has grown to about nine million in five years, and as the bank looks to expand that further, Pearce's mobile development team plans to look for opportunities to distinguish mobile banking from other electronic channels. Well Fargo's early moves include using GPS to find ATMs and branches. The use of imaging is designed partly to reach customers who use mobile phones for electronic commerce more than computers

"Mobile deposit is a feature that's unique to mobile. It's special and is not available on the online [website]," Pearce says. "If you look at our user base, we have customers beginning to use the mobile phone for banking who don't have access to a computer to do banking during the day. [With mobile deposit] they can do something with the phone that they can't do with a desktop."

To market mobile banking, the bank does rely on other channels to spread information about remote deposit capture and other applications, including information on its public website and in branches. That includes screen shots and demos. "A lot of times consumers want to check the apps out and get a feel for mobile before they try it," Pearce says.

Wells Fargo, which develops most of its consumer-facing mobile banking apps internally, did not address product-specific plans to use image capture technology for other purposes, though the natural progression of mobile imaging technology lends itself to other documents. U.S. Bank (USB), for example, plans to pilot mobile image capture for bill payment early this year; and developers are building apps that allow the use of image capture to execute documents in mortgage processing.

Regarding these newer uses of mobile image capture, Pearce says Wells Fargo is looking to offer a broad suite of "mobile unique" services in which the embedded camera can be used to snap photos of information. "For example, we're pursuing innovation opportunities around alternate forms of data input and we see the camera as a key component of this," he says.

Mobile banking has grown faster than web banking, and in the case of mobile check deposit, the uptake has often been even faster. "We got feedback from customers within 48 hours," says Diane Morais, a deposit executive for Ally.

Ally late last year added remote deposit capture, along with bill payment and external transfers, to its mobile banking app. The bank's earlier app included ATM locators, balance queries and internal account transfers. The bank's approach is a bit different than Wells Fargo. Rather than looking for "mobile only" function, Ally has added new mobile functions based in part on analysis of how consumers were using the bank's website.

"We look at how customers are using the desktop platform, and have made the mobile channels an extension of many of the most common transactions that consumers make electronically," says Morais, adding the difference is the functions have been customized and designed for mobile devices.

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