When AT&T Corp. launched its Universal Card in 1990, few credit card bankers considered it a serious competitive threat.
Five years later, the telecommunications giant ranks second in MasterCard and Visa cards issued, at 22.5 million, and fifth in receivables, at $12 billion, according to The Nilson Report.
That lesson learned, bankers and their high-tech consultants are taking notice as AT&T strides into the ranks of home banking and electronic commerce contenders.
Banking experts' reactions were two-pronged this week as AT&T unveiled a series of products and services aimed at broadening relationships with its customers.
They have a sneaking suspicion that AT&T will eventually be a competitor, perhaps even more formidable than Microsoft Corp., the other recent embodiment of bankers' fears about new forms of cross-industry competition.
But they also view AT&T, by dint of its involvement, as a boon to the home banking cause.
"You get big names with big numbers, and big things tend to happen," said Joseph Pendleton 3d, senior vice president at Meridian Bancorp, Reading, Pa.
At least two of AT&T's new deals had direct bearing on electronic financial services.
The company sealed a five-year marketing agreement with Checkfree Corp. to handle bill payments initiated via interactive television and personal computers.
AT&T also agreed to work with CFI ProServices Inc., Portland, Ore., to develop home banking software for AT&T's interactive set-top box, called HomeCenter. The two companies will offer these services through financial institutions.
"CFI is pleased to be working with a company of AT&T's stature in making TV-based banking a reality for financial institutions and their customers," said Matt Chapman, the software company's chairman and chief executive officer.
Though a few banks have dabbled in interactive television as a delivery medium for financial services, most view it as less of a business opportunity - at least in the near term - than either personal computers or telephones that are enhanced with computerlike screens.
Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications Inc., a Bethesda, Md.- based consulting firm, pointed out that the principles behind AT&T's HomeCenter date back more than a decade, to Chemical Banking Corp.'s banking-by-television program.
Though AT&T's timing may be better, Mr. Arlen questioned how much the average consumer would want to use an entertainment medium to do something as sobering as paying bills.
Ironically, Mr. Arlen said, the telecommunications behemoth appears to be making greater strides in electronic financial services with interactive television and personal computers than with enhanced telephones, which are much closer to its core business.
Though it may not have as decisive a lock on the PC platform as Microsoft, which is the leading provider the computers' basic operating systems, AT&T does have a relationship with 70% of U.S. households, Mr. Arlen said.
Perhaps more important, he said, the average consumer holds a "warm and fuzzy" view of AT&T, harking back to its historical image as Ma Bell. Mr. Arlen believes the company could build on that reputation in the emerging electronic commerce business.
Carolyn Spicer of State Bank of Fenton, Mich., a pioneering community bank in interactive television and other on-line services, said AT&T's entry will "heighten (consumer) awareness and acceptability" of banking by any and all remote means.
Mr. Pendleton at Meridian, which is also testing interactive television as well as other alternatives, agreed that at this stage AT&T could help banks more than hinder them.
"I'm a little concerned," he said. "But the good news is that we're on that point of the growth curve that anything that happens is good all across the board."
Some observers were quick to make comparisons between AT&T and Microsoft. One urged bankers to stay on the alert about Microsoft, despite its recent inability, because of government antitrust pressure, to complete a merger with Intuit Inc., maker of the Quicken personal finance software.
"Just because the big bad wolf in Microsoft has been put in its place doesn't mean the forests are safe," said Adam Schoenfeld, a consultant at Jupiter Communications Co. in New York.
AT&T outclasses Microsoft in terms of sheer size, but bankers' fears of losing market share to the software giant were more valid, said Michael Killen, president of Killen & Associates, a Palo Alto, Calif., consulting firm.
He said that for banks like Citicorp and NationsBank Corp., which already have well-developed remote banking strategies, AT&T could provide serious competition. For others that have yet to mount such a strategy, AT&T might be a source of encouragement and support.
Mr. Killen - whose company produced an influential study warning of Microsoft's potential dominance of the market defined as electronic financial services - said Microsoft is still more than a year ahead of AT&T in its efforts.
And Microsoft's more concentrated PC-based approach puts it in a much stronger position to skim the cream off the rich $2.2 trillion business of electronic financial services, he said.
AT&T is "less of a threat than Microsoft," Mr. Killen said. "Microsoft has all its ducks in a row. I don't know if AT&T does."