Crestar Financial Corp. is installing a branch automation system based on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT computing platform.

A small but growing number of banks are installing similar systems.

Crestar, with $14.4 billion of assets, is upgrading its teller stations with the Bankpro branch automation software developed by Dallas-based Argo Data Resource Corp.

The bank is already using Bankpro on its branch workstations, but in a version that runs under the OS/2 operating system, developed by International Business Machine Corp. Crestar agreed to be the first installation site for Argo's new Windows NT-based software.

If the evaluation of the software in the teller environment goes well, Crestar also plans to migrate its platform stations to the Windows NT system, said officials at the Richmond, Va., bank.

The bank's decision considers that Windows NT has less to do with expected benefits in its branches than with bank-wide advantages, said David O. Holman, senior vice president and manager of branch operations at the bank.

He explained that NT is not likely to give the bank any more functionality than OS/2 at the branch level, but that Windows is used in so many other areas of the bank that it makes sense to standardize on the platform. Having common computing systems will eliminate technical hurdles and provide a better link between commercial and retail bank divisions, he said.

The bank plans to start by deploying a Windows-NT teller system in its 338 branches and on more than 1,700 teller workstations. Installation is expected to be completed in mid-1997.

Crestar is part of a growing group of financial institutions choosing Windows NT over more established branch automation systems, such as OS/2.

Microsoft recently reported that six major financial institutions had begun to install computer networks based on Windows NT, among them Citicorp and Keycorp.

Others installing NT include ABN Amro, Seafirst Corp., and First Interstate Bancorp.

OS/2 still is used by many large banks, but industry research shows that the tables may turn as Windows steadily gains momentum in branch environments.

According to the Tower Group, a Wellesley, Mass.-based technology consulting firm, Windows NT, with a negligible share of the desktop operating system market this year, is expected to capture 23% by 1997, versus 12% for OS/2.

One reason analysts believe NT is finally starting to pose a threat to the OS/2 market is that more powerful desktop computers that can handle the system have finally become available.

There is also some concern among banks and branch automation software vendors whether OS/2 will remain viable over the long term in light of Windows' increasing popularity.

To ensure that they are not left behind if the market swings heavily in the Windows direction, such major branch automation software vendors as Argo have developed or are planning to support systems for the Windows environment.

In Argo's case, banking customers such as Crestar encouraged the company's move to Windows.

"We have been one of the advocates of Argo expanding to include support for Windows," said Crestar's Mr. Holman.

The systems will be replacing an older IBM teller platform that used dumb terminals.

Crestar will also be evaluating the Windows 95 operating system for branch workstations.

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