Electronic bill presentment took a step closer to reality this week.

Checkfree Corp., Intuit Inc., and Microsoft Corp., backers of the Open Financial Exchange standard, unveiled a new chapter of the electronic commerce protocol that would let billers invoice customers through a variety of software products.

Instead of merely making bills available through sites on the World Wide Web, for instance, bankers and billers using the OFX specification could transmit information to a personal financial manager, such as Intuit's Quicken or Microsoft's Money.

That could significantly widen the market for electronic bill presentment by enabling home banking customers to receive bills without even getting on the Internet.

Conceivably, products such as E-mail software could be modified to receive and send electronic payments, raising the possibility of "end to end" billing and paying that has been eagerly anticipated by home banking advocates.

"Open Financial Exchange gives us more opportunities to get our bills to our customers," said Peter H. Byrne, electronic commerce consultant for GPU Energy, a utility serving customers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

GPU currently allows customers to receive and pay their utility bills through the E-Bill Web page sponsored by Checkfree.

"Banks will be the places customers go to get the information," Mr. Byrne said. "Many will see this as an opportunity to make money or to provide a service to their customers that no one else provides."

Banks will be able to consolidate their customers' bills once they are freed from worrying about software compatibility, OFX proponents said. Competition will determine which software tools are best for presenting and receiving bills, said Matt Cone, business development manager at Microsoft. It could be a Web browser or tuner, a personal financial manager, or some future product.

"OFX does not define a user paradigm for which bills will be received and paid," Mr. Cone said.

Bill Harris, executive vice president of Intuit, said, "Billing companies, especially those with high volume, can publish bills themselves or work with billing service providers to quickly introduce bill presentment services."

But the vision could take some time to be realized, said Forrester Research analyst Karen Epper.

"Widespread bill presentment is at least four to five years off," she said.

Visa, which has touted its e-Pay system as a "bank-centric" vehicle for bill processing, has not evaluated the proposed OFX standard. The card association sees "the financial institution as the key" at both ends of the transaction, said Visa spokesman Greg Jones.

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