Meca Software and its owners, including Citicorp, NationsBank Corp., and BankAmerica Corp., have climbed on the Java bandwagon as an alternative to Microsoft Corp.'s home banking technology.
The Meca consortium announced an agreement Monday with Sun Microsystems Inc. to promote development of interactive financial software and services in Sun's Java programming language.
Given the Meca ownership-other shareholders are First Bank System, Fleet Financial Group, Royal Bank of Canada, and New England Life-the move represents one of the strongest industry endorsements of Java as well as a shot across Microsoft's bow.
Microsoft came out a month ago with its Internet Finance Server Tool Kit, with CoreStates Financial Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. among 75 companies in advanced testing stages.
Meca and Sun are pulling out all stops to proclaim their Java approach superior, and in the process banking is turning into a crucial Sun- Microsoft battleground.
There has been no love lost between the software companies and their respective chief executive officers, Scott McNealy and Bill Gates, over both computing philosophy and industry allegiances.
Mr. McNealy raised the specter of Microsoft as interloper, stating, "Sun and Meca respect the institution's relationship with its customers and will help the institution enhance this relationship and build its brand."
"Meca's commitment is in line with Sun's philosophy of not competing with banks," added Sun financial services vice president Rob Hall.
Sun's slogan, "The network is the computer," indicates its orientation toward powerful networks of linked workstations, whereas Microsoft emphasizes autonomous personal computers with Internet connectivity. Java lends itself to programs, or abbreviated programs called applets, that can be transmitted to machines or devices of any size.
Microsoft, like many technology companies, has licensed Java but has limited its embrace. Interviewed earlier this year on the Mecklermedia Web site internet.com, Mr. Gates said, "We believe in Java the language, but not Java the religion."
Meca is proselytizing, sending letters to 30 major banking, brokerage, and insurance companies, inviting them to join the software development effort.
Meca Software LLC president Paul Harrison said he expects 15 to participate.
Mr. Harrison said Trumbull, Conn.-based Meca seeks to transcend its business of personal financial management software, where it competes against Microsoft's Money and Intuit Inc.'s Quicken.
Those products "as we know them today will disappear," he said. "We are creating not a product but capabilities for Internet infrastructure that can be deployed and branded by financial institutions."
Price Waterhouse has been commissioned to research electronic banking opportunities and consumer receptivity. Based on the findings, Meca would define products to be deployed in the first half of 1998.
"Because of Java capability, there is no need to define the end product; we can deliver components over time," said Mr. Harrison.
Cyril Reif, Sun's director of financial industry technology, said the Java-SunConnect architecture is broader than Microsoft's because it is "open and cross-platform." Microsoft's Internet Finance Server, which was code-named Marble, limits users to Windows operating systems.
"We feel confident that we still have the best Web-based banking products," said Don McGill, product manager for Microsoft's Internet Finance Server Tool Kit. "Based on what we have seen, financial institutions want tools they can develop, a robust system ... that runs on standard PCs. When it comes to a net value proposition, the combination of Marble with the NT server is the clear winner."
Meca's alliance "establishes a road map for its product and gives its owners and partners confidence in its future intentions," said Piper Jaffray analyst Bill Burnham. He also said it could complement the strategy of Integrion Financial Network, another on-line bank consortium and Microsoft antagonist.