Headlines about one Internet security breakdown after another compel banks to be realistic in judging whether the Internet and World Wide Web ever can be made secure enough for banking.
I do not believe they can.
Today's high-flying Internet software houses claim that, given time, they will make things right. "Find a hole in our security, and we'll fix it," they say, adding, "Trust me!"
What bank can afford to? The Internet is open to invasion because that is how it was built. Its most valuable asset, complete public access, is why the Internet will always be a high-risk medium for private information - account numbers, money in those accounts, or anything else.
Because anyone can access the vast network, the customer and his bank may never even know when account information is stolen by an on-line mugger. Months could elapse before a thief would use it to mimic customer home computers, search out high balances, and siphon them off.
Smarter banks and card issuers are beginning to understand these fatally flawed Internet genes. None wants to lose a single customer because of them.
"Wait a minute," Web fans shout. "Give us time, and we will make Web banking safe and easy." No they won't, and the key reason is the Web's built-in inconvenience.
Just to start the Web, we must first start a computer. We must then choose a Web site or dig one out of a huge pile, get in a sometimes very long electronic line, and wait for a far-away computer to send information at a snail's pace, with no guarantee that everything will arrive.
Even if the electronic glitches that today slow the Web to a crawl and decimate data enroute to users can eventually be eliminated, so what? The Web's overwhelming democracy makes it impossible on a cost-effective basis for banks (or anyone else) to differentiate themselves successfully from the rest of the Web pack.
It's hard enough to get marketing efforts noticed on the Internet and Web, and no amount of money will change that. With its value so diminished, why even think about making it secure?
If the Web cannot be made safe for banking, or even raise the profile of a bank, what technology-based competitive edge will banks have?
The only advantage of the Internet is that it allows data to be moved inexpensively by satellite and telephone, and you don't need the Web to exploit that.
The system replacing the Web indeed will exploit that aspect, though. It will let consumers track money, spend it safely, and keep it in a closed "envelope" until it arrives where it is meant to.
What will take the Web's place? Fast telecommunications geared to "smart cards."
Sold inexpensively or given away free as cellular phones are today, any single smart card will let consumers spend electronically using a self- selected mix of bank, credit card, frequent-flier, Social Security, food stamp, store coupon, and even library accounts.
Consumers won't even have to go to the ATM to use the cards, though plenty will. Many more will turn to their phone, TV, or home PC and, with the same swipe of the card that cashiers make today, "fill 'er up."
Phenomenal ease of use will make these smart cards the single most preferred consumer "terminal" for receiving and responding to bank marketing.
Each of these wafer-thin electronic wallets will also open the prized creative space for marketers that the Web promises but cannot deliver: the ability, no matter where the consumer inserts the card, to break past artificial "Web page" confines, present the bank's image beautifully, make the sale, and record the consumer's purchase safely and confidentially.
And, because most consumers will refill smart cards from wherever they keep their money, aggressive financial services firms will carve out markets as carriers for other companies' smart card marketing.
Banks must make sure every corporate dollar spent today to reach customers through the Web also paves the way for migrating the bank's marketing to the smart card platform. Don't let anyone tell you it can't be done.
Also, make sure your bank adjusts its marketing swiftly to the way consumers actually will use these cards. If your bank does not put this strategy in place now, it will at some point.
Only it will spend lots more time and money later on to chase business that the competition began to win much earlier, and at a much lower cost.
Mr. Brody is a consultant based in Washington, D.C.