The electronic banking business has seen more unions than a Moonie wedding. Meca Software and Sun Microsystems-arguably drawn together by their mutual rivalry with Microsoft-are betting their relationship has staying power. For Meca, a Trumbull, CT-based consortium owned by Bank of America, NationsBank, First Bank System, Fleet Financial Group, Royal Bank of Canada, Citibank and The New England, the marriage will allow banks to offer their customers Java-based solutions of secure remote access to financial services, anywhere, anytime.

For Sun MicroSystems Inc., a 15-year-old computing giant with $8.5 billion in annual revenues, it's a coveted chance to develop specific solutions for financial institutions and finally, clearly understand that booming, lucrative market. "Technology is not (Meca's) primary business, financial services is," says Jim Bressler, Sun's global marketing director, banking. "But the pace is changing so quickly that no one wants to look stupid or get left behind. (Bankers) are looking for technology companies to help them make sense of it all and to rationalize their investments." As competition for financial services customers heats up, with everyone from insurance companies to telcos jumping into the fray, it's a great time to get married, Bressler says.

"Banks and other players must truly become a financial supermarket," he says; using Sun's solutions, banks are hoping to develop a whole range of products they can brand and sell to customers-whether banking from a pay phone, cell phone or over the Internet. "The Net has really woken people up," Bressler adds, forcing traditionally slow-moving banks to realize they need to regularly reach out and touch their customers quickly and more cheaply than their competitors. "For Meca, it's a continuing evolution," says David Weisman, director of money and technology strategies with Forrester Research, a technology research company in Cambridge, MA. Thanks to Sun's deep pockets, he says, Meca can now do some additional research with consumers. For Sun, the deal offers instant access to Meca's bank owners, "a much more efficient way to get in the door," says Weisman. Catherine Allen, CEO of the Banking Industry Technology Secretariat, the technology arm of the Bankers Roundtable representing 125 of the country's largest banks, agrees, calling the deal a "win-win." "What we want to do is have the banks drive the standards and specifications and have software vendors develop products accordingly." This alliance speeds up the bankers, Allen says, who are realizing that they need technology partners to bring products to market much faster than in the past.

But, as for all newlyweds, it might be a rough first year. Research will be key to figure out where to go next. "(Financial services) research is difficult to do and it produces spotty results," says Weisman. "It's very hard for consumers to tell you about the future."

Paul Harrison, CEO of Meca admits, "there are still some unknowns." He wants to work on solutions "for the people who are still getting comfortable with ATMs," 40 percent of Americans. "To recoup the investment in high tech, it has to be really adopted by the masses."

Harrison plans to create solutions using a "lifestyle approach," catering to consumers' specific financial needs. The idea is to create an "electronic habit." Predicting that the current two million Americans using PCs for home banking will quintuple in the next three years, Harrison says, "We think there's a huge market." C.Kelly

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