ATLANTA - The Bank Administration Institute retail delivery systems conference, which concluded Wednesday in Atlanta, confirmed its status as banking's biggest and hottest event - but it was no blockbuster in the area of product announcements.
While an all-star roster of speakers headed by Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates helped draw a crowd of 6,000 - nearly double the previous year's - the product and service exhibitors seemed mainly to be demonstrating prototypes or unveiling relatively minor offerings.
Perhaps many of the companies feared a big announcement would get lost in the commotion surrounding Mr. Gates, keynote speaker Hugh L. McColl Jr. of NationsBank Corp., and numerous panel discussions with industry leaders and observers.
Unisys Corp. of Blue Bell, Pa., demonstrated an advanced voice recognition technology that it intends to use in its call center offerings.
Expected to be generally available in the summer, the technology, Natural Language Understanding, lets callers speak commands to automated voice response systems, rather than keying them on touch tone telephones.
Originally marketed by a Unisys unit that sold systems to government agencies, the voice recognition technology functions well within banking applications, Unisys officials said.
The system, which is expected to cost between $3,000 and $7,000 per phone line, has yet to be sold to a financial institution. But Unisys officials said three banks in the $20 billion-plus asset range have expressed interest.
International Business Machines Corp. also unveiled some technologies for bank call centers.
Through its recent acquisition of Early, Cloud & Co., Newport, R.I., IBM announced a new line of software for the retail banking call center.
Called CallFlow, the client/server-based software line has products that help automate a full range of call center operations, including back-end call processing and front-end customer representative services.
"This is a natural extension of our existing software development architecture," said David P. Bonaccorsi, vice president of research and development at Early Cloud.
Several financial institutions already have committed to using pieces of CallFlow. These include Citicorp and Bank of Hawaii.
CallFlow is expected to be generally available in the second quarter. The software will work in OS/2, Windows, Windows 95, and Windows NT computer environments.
IBM said it plans to combine Early Cloud's technology with that of another acquisition, Footprint Software Inc., Toronto.
Footprint's Visual Banker product is a branch automation system designed to let banks practice relationship banking.
"IBM plans to integrate Visual Banker with CallFlow Client - a natural combination," said Robert Berini, a retail banking executive at IBM.
"Our customers are asking us to enable the reuse of common business functions across a growing variety of retail channels."
Affinity Technology Group, a Columbia, S.C.-based technology vendor whose automated loan machine received much attention at last year's conference, announced that it has expanded the range of transactions that its terminals can provide.
In addition to handling standard loan applications, Affinity ALMs now can process and approve joint loan applications, credit card applications, and secured loan applications.
In addition, the touch-screen terminals can communicate to users in a variety of languages.
"Our enhanced product line enables financial institutions to provide breakthrough products to keep and increase their customer base and generate assets with less infrastructure," said Jeff A. Norris, president and chief executive of Affinity.
Several banks have installed Affinity products, including Banc One Corp. and Mellon Bank Corp.
National Registry Inc., St. Petersburg, Fla., demonstrated software that would let banks use fingerprints to identify employees and customers.
The system uses a special pad to electronically capture fingerprint images. In a bank application, the images would be compared against master files stored on a bank's systems.
Executives at National Registry said fingerprints are a more certain method of identification than passwords or identification numbers, because fingerprints require nothing of the user. The chances of incorrect identification based on fingerprints are nearly nil, said Clinton C. Fuller, vice president of National Registry.
Mr. Fuller said the technology would work best within branch-based bank systems. It could be used to identify customers and bank employees.
National Registry aims to piggyback its product on existing bank systems rather than selling it as a stand-alone product to banks. It demonstrated the fingerprint identification system with a Unisys Corp. branch automation system, known as FBA Navigator.
Among other product launchers was M&I Data Services, the data processing unit of Marshall & Ilsley Corp., Milwaukee, announced the release of its data warehousing product, M&I information Desktop.
The software is designed to let banks turn customer data into information that can be used to improve customer relationships.
"This product comes to market at a time when banks are trying to get a tighter rein on costs and get close to their customers," said Joseph Delgadillo, president and chief executive of M&I Data.
Appro Systems Inc., Baton Rouge, La., unveiled a Windows version of its credit evaluation software, known as 20/20 Small Business Lending System.
The PC-based system automates risk evaluation for small-business loans.
In the electronic commerce realm, Hewlett-Packard Co., Five Paces Inc., and Secureware Inc. have made the software used by Security First National Bank available to other financial institutions. Security First bills itself as the first Internet-based bank.
Hewlett-Packard and Secureware provide the technology that protects financial transactions. Five Paces makes Virtual Bank Manager, which lets consumers manage bank accounts on-line.