The quality and ease of computer banking programs are as scattered as their pricing, according to an analyst surveying the field.
Lawrence Cohn, who follows big banks for PaineWebber Inc. in New York, has opened accounts at 15 institutions to see how good they are at personal computer banking and bill paying.
Just two months into his project, Mr. Cohn did not want to talk about definitive conclusions. But he did offer some observations about the programs' economics and functionality.
Citicorp earned high marks for its software, though it has hardly changed in a decade. Mr. Cohn called it the "clunkiest" but most reliable.
"It's the only one where they sent me the disk, I stuck it in the computer, it worked, and I've never even called them for help," he said.
"It's slow, it's not at all intuitive, there are a zillion other products out there that are much more obvious to use, but-by God-it works each and every time."
By contrast, Wells Fargo's high-tech offering caused Mr. Cohn headaches. It was "enormously difficult to set up, and I have subsequently spoken with a whole bunch of other people who have had all of the same problems," the analyst said.
The problem was that Mr. Cohn's computer didn't come loaded with the designated encryption technology.
"Wells has a location on its home page that says it will download it, but I haven't met anybody who has successfully done so," Mr. Cohn said.
He ended up asking the San Francisco bank to mail him the software. Before the disks arrived, he bought a new version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which included the proper technology. After several calls to customer service, he was up and running.
"In the last 30 years, I have not called a bank for help about an account five times-yet I signed up for all these home banking services," Mr. Cohn said.
In calls to the banks, he found vast differences in the quality of help and in the length of time he was kept on hold.
"Some banks have figured it out, and some haven't got a clue," he said. "Some banks treat it like what it is today-a very peripheral product. Others have made a much more conscious effort to really try to get it right up-front, on the theory that it will encourage people to use it."
Recalling banks' experience with automated teller machines, which never succeeded at reducing total operating costs, Mr. Cohn said it would cause problems if banks directly compare the cost of a teller transaction with that of a remote transaction. Without remote channels, "there never would have been so many transactions to begin with," he said.
"The same thing is true of home banking," Mr. Cohn said. "I sign on all the time and just sort of look at stuff. Would I have done that before? No. Would I pay for doing that? No. But it's sort of neat."
There are disadvantages to managing so many accounts. Sometimes, Mr. Cohn is hard-pressed to find enough bills to pay through 15 different banks. "The biggest problem," he said, "is keeping track of 15 PINs and passwords."