Microsoft Corp. said Wells Fargo & Co., CoreStates Financial Corp., and PaineWebber Inc. will be in the forefront as 70 financial and technology companies begin using its new system for developing Internet services.
The system, code-named Marble, has caused an anticipatory stir in the on-line banking community in recent months.
Microsoft touted it as a breakthrough that would make it far easier for financial institutions of almost any size to create and manage banking, brokerage, and bill paying capabilities over the Internet's World Wide Web.
But bankers who had grown wary of the software company's market power worried that Marble could drive a wedge between financial institutions and their customers.
The enthusiastic response-Microsoft officials said they had to turn away some organizations interested in participating in the early testing-is an apparent vote of confidence in Microsoft's stated intention to compete mainly in "core technology."
Microsoft plans to announce today that Marble, now the Microsoft Internet Finance Server Tool Kit, has advanced to a second, "beta" test stage with the 70 users. But the meaning of the endorsements goes deeper than the number of participants, the vast majority of which have not been publicly identified.
Besides buying a piece of Microsoft philosophy, the test participants are at least open to the possibility that the Redmond, Wash., giant has "lowered the bar" to a new level of sophistication in Web-based services. And they are casting a vote for the technical standard Open Financial Exchange, or OFX.
Microsoft, Checkfree Corp., and Intuit Inc. have championed OFX in opposition to Gold, which is backed by International Business Machines Corp. and the banks in its Integrion Financial Network.
The OFX-Gold battle is far from over. Major banks, working through the Bankers Roundtable's Banking Industry Technology Secretariat, have expressed a desire for a convergence of the standards.
Karen Epper, analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., said Marble is a testament to Microsoft's ability to widen the appeal of its Windows NT operating system, sell on-line technology to midsize as well as larger financial institutions, and gain adherents for OFX. She said Gold's best hope is to be "swallowed up in a compatible standard."
Alex Stein, principal of Gomez Advisors, Boston, argued that "neither side is winning yet. Microsoft's motivation is to sell software, IBM's is to build a physical network for secure transactions, and both have their bugaboos as far as banks and securities firms are concerned."
But the initial backers of the Internet tool kit, as they move from "alpha" to "beta" testing, view it as an OFX vehicle and say initial offerings will emerge over the next six months.
"We are embracing OFX," said Linda Weber, senior vice president, electronic commerce and delivery systems and technology, at CoreStates in Philadelphia.
"We are comfortable with the standard at this point," she said. "Our goal is to enable customers to access us the way they want to," and Marble- OFX affords the desired flexibility and customizability on both customer screens and back-end connections to payment service providers.
CoreStates, Wells Fargo, and PaineWebber "are the organizations that agreed to announce publicly," said Microsoft business development manager Matthew Cone. "We expect many more will go public before yearend."
Of the first-wave announcements, San Francisco-based Wells, which has enrolled some 200,000 people to do banking over the Web, was already on record as a Marble bank.
PaineWebber was drawn to Marble because of OFX and is joining Charles Schwab & Co. and others in the securities industry attracted to the standard.
New York-based PaineWebber's research indicates that clients will want to see their "financial picture across institutions," which OFX can facilitate, said Lauren Mascitelli, senior vice president and director of electronic marketing.
She called OFX "the standard for exchanges of information over the Internet" and a foundation for "specific opportunities that will evolve longer-term."
A vendor, Intelidata Technologies Corp. of Herndon, Va., will be offering Interpose OFX, a package for financial institutions that takes up where Microsoft's leaves off, said Tim Ruhe, director of marketing.
"Microsoft is encouraging banks to embrace the standards and enabling them to bring the transaction processing and technology in-house," Mr. Ruhe said. "It's no longer rocket science ... and it doesn't lock users into Microsoft. There will be plenty of Internet and personal financial software solutions. I don't see how banks can lose at this."
An institution "used to have to link into a unique system" for account servicing, said Mr. Stein. "Now more people can provide a wider choice of services."
"I'm not surprised" at the response to Marble, Ms. Weber of CoreStates said. "It is a very simple to use, flexible kit. It is an easy to use product and creates a more exciting Internet experience" than currently available alternatives.