Only a few short years ago, some European particle physicists who wanted an easy way to keep track of their colleagues' work invented the World Wide Web.
Now, the trademark "www.whatever.com" is splashed on everything from coffee ads to Olympic posters. And banking will never be the same.
Although banking is one of the most computerized of industries, surveys by our firm suggest that banking's embrace of the Web has been hesitant and uneven. Some banks are charging ahead with interesting and innovative Web sites, but many more are hanging back.
Our surveys, however, also suggest some simple rules and guidelines for making the most of the Web.
The simplest and most important rule is that building a Web strategy can't be left to the techies. Simply displaying marketing brochures on a home page is not a strategy.
Using the Web effectively requires taking a coherent view of how it will support a specific business strategy.
What do you want to sell over the Web? Are you trying to tap new markets, or provide easier access to your current customers? What is your pricing strategy? How much Web-induced stress can your current transaction system take?
The path into cyberspace starts with the Web site. Sites can range from marketing sites that display simple information to transaction sites that are totally interactive. There are many intermediate points.
Transactional sites are clearly more expensive, usually costing five to 10 times as much as a marketing site.
More importantly, without a clear strategy for systems, marketing and product, a transaction site is almost guaranteed to be an expensive failure. And any bank that isn't already offering a home banking product or banking by phone isn't ready to make the leap to a transaction site.
Our surveys suggest that most banks are content for the time being with broadcast-only sites, to get their feet wet and gain experience in the on- line world. The brand-building potential of broadcast-only sites should not be underestimated.
Robin Haueter, a specialist in brand development for banks, says: "Banks tend to ignore the importance of brand development. Any communications that increase awareness of your brand's value are steps in the right direction."
The next critical decision is the selection of the Web site developer. Currently, most banks are relying on specialized consultants.
Roger Stone, president of a Web site development group called Stoneweb, says: "The designer needs the technical know-how to construct the site, and the competency to bring you to the next technological level.
"But he also needs the expertise in financial services to ensure that the site supports your business model, and the creative juices necessary to wrap your site and your strategy into a coherent cyberspace package."
But putting up a site is just the start of the process. As part of our ongoing study, "U.S. consumer financial services and the Internet," we recently surveyed banks' performances responding to simple information requests on their Web sites.
Performance, quite simply, was horrendous. Half of the targets did not reply at all, and only two responded within 24 hours. The median response time - for those who did bother to respond - was a bit more than two weeks.
Doing business in cyberspace means playing by cyberspace rules.
Customers don't expect their E-mail to be printed out and dumped in a bin with the rest of the day's correspondence. A successful Web site requires its own business process, its own performance standards and, usually, dedicated staff.
A bank that doesn't answer queries on its Web site is sending a devastating message about its competence and responsiveness. Would you buy a financial product from that institution?
Technical issues all can be solved with time and attention. The marketing and strategic questions might be much tougher:
Do you want to post product pricing on your Web site, or will that just speed up the commoditization of your business? Do you want to start your Web presence with some selected new products specially designed for interactive customers? What would you like to move out of the branch? Or does a Web site make more sense for business relationship customers who have the technical sophistication to match yours? Will your business customers pay more for Web-based products?
Most banks are reluctant to be on-line pioneers. Late-comers often have had the luxury of watching the dust settle and learning from the winners.
The first entrants in cyberspace might be able to pick up valuable market share, but only if they have a clear strategy and a well thought-out game plan. The sooner a bank starts moving up the learning curve, the better.
When the site is ready and the URL registered with the major search engines, the job is only beginning.
Doing business on the Web is a constant learning and feedback-and- response process. Which customers are using the Web? Why? How are they different from branch customers? Is the Web changing how they use the bank's services? What new services would they use?
As with any new distribution channel, maximizing the benefits that will emerge from cyberspace requires an intense focus on the customer.
Cyberspace isn't a threat. It's a challenge to our fundamental management ability. The future doesn't belong to the techno-wizard. It never has. It belongs to the thinking manager.
Ms. Horwitz is managing director and Mr. Sandoval an analyst with Premier Business Consulting, New York. The firm specializes in strategic marketing and service delivery for the financial services and information industries.