A unit of Detroit-based Comerica Inc. and a Massachusetts savings bank will be the first to offer the Interactive Transaction Partners home banking and billpaying service.

The home services venture, known as 1TP, will officially announce the signings today of Comerica Bank-Texas and Salem Five Cents Savings Bank.

The two banks plan to start experimenting soon with telephone- and computer-based banking for groups of employees, with full customer rollouts planned for early next year. J. Randall Peyser, the president of ITP, strongly hinted that more participants in his program are close to going public.

The news is a lift not just for ITP, which is 50% owned by Electronic Data Systems Corp. and 50% by a joint venture of U S West and France Telecom, but for the home banking market as a whole.

Though no one doubted the credentials of ITP and its powerful backers from the computer services and telecommunications industries, the live customers lend it credibility.

Now ITP can claim a place alongside MasterCard, Visa, and other groups in shaping the emerging interactive-services market. Executives at those and other companies say the everwidening circle of players in home banking and other information-highway phenomena supports the viability of this emerging market.

ITP is unveiling its first customer agreements 9 1/2 months after formally announcing the partnership, and just short of a month after the last major homebanking earthquake - Visa International's agreement to acquire a major part of U.S. Order and make it the nucleus of a new business unit, Visa Interactive.

That was only one of many developments that with increasing frequency seem to be altering the interactive-services landscape. ITP, too, will be contributing to the excitement - and confusion.

As of last month, MasterCard International's Master Banking had signed 18 financial institutions or associations, and in fact was further along than Visa in processing live customer initiated transactions.

One of Master Banking's participants is Comerica Bank of Detroit, the largest affiliate of the Texas bank that will be working with ITP.

MasterCard has allied itself with Checkfree Corp., the electronic bill payment processor. Visa formed a similar alliance with Intuit Inc., maker of the Quicken personal finance software, as well as with U.S. Order, which also markets a screenenhanced telephone and interactive shopping service.

The software giant Microsoft worked with three major banks, including Comerica rival Michigan National Corp., to develop a banking component for the Money software package.

Intuit recently acquired National Payment Clearinghouse Inc., a bill-payment processor that had been working on the Microsoft project with Michigan National, First Chicago Corp., and U.S. Bancorp.

"A tremendous amount is happening out there," said Mr. Peyser, the former Electronic Data Systems executive who took charge of ITP at its inception last year. "I think you'll see significant activity in the next couple of months, and exponential growth in the next couple of years."

Neil Marcous, vice president and general manager of the EDS electronic financial and information transactions services unit, which signed the first customers for ITP, said some 30 institutions are in discussions about the system. He expects at least 50 agreements to be signed by yearend.

"The interest is coming from aggressive midsize community banks, and there is a lot from larger banks" including moneycenters, Mr. Marcous said.

The very different characteristics of the first two announced customers - Comerica BankTexas is a $3.4 billion-asset subsidiary of a $32 billion superregional company, and Salem Five Cents Savings has $750 million of assets and 21 offices - embody what Mr. Peyser sees as a hopeful message about ITP's appeal.

The company projects itself as a utility that can ease financial institutions' entry onto the data highway.

A hallmark of the strategy is "device independence" - ITP offers to support anything from a basic telephone with automated voice-response capability to a full-scale personal computer in the home. The company says it, rather than its customer banks, will bear the risk if a given hardware choice doesn't pan out.

Working with Comerica, which will test the waters in multiple markets and through an array of delivery systems, ITP is demonstrating its "flexibility in approaching the marketplace," Mr. Peyser said. "Individual financial institutions' needs have to be addressed."

Both Comerica-Texas and Salem Five issued statements to the effect that ITP will help them serve customers' evolving needs on the customers' own terms.

"Selecting the ITP system is the first step in converting our ideas [about redefining customer convenience] into action," said Salem Five senior vice president Kevin Tierney.

Jeff Roesler, assistant vice president of electronic banking at Comerica-Texas, said the results of a three- to six-month employee pilot will dictate next year's marketing strategy.

He said the .bank, which currently provides no home-based service, was attracted to ITP's flexibility in accommodating multiple devices. "I'd rather have the customers make the choice rather than the bank dictating the choice to them," Mr. Roesler said.

ITP has committed itself so completely to flexibility, Mr. Peyser said, that it is "looking for ways to work with any and all entities that provide services to financial institutions, including MasterCard and Visa." If those organizations or an ITP client so desire, ITP will link up with systems that might nominally be viewed as competitive.

At the same time, ITP is claiming a neutrality in the interest of the banking community that can be seen as a challenge even to the bank-owned MasterCard and Visa associations.

Mr. Peyser is as forceful as Visa officials were last month in declaring a "total commitment" to financial institutions and their continued control over payment systems and customer relationships. But he also pointed out that Visa and MasterCard are working with companies like U.S. Order and Checkfree that are marketing directly to consumers even as they cooperate with the banks.

"Financial institutions have to weigh the positions of these companies and ask if they are going to be 100% dedicated to working in a true partnership, or might they have other competitive interests at the same time," Mr. Peyser said. "We won't sell our service directly to consumers."

Mr. Peyser sees electronic information services eventually becoming much bigger than banking and transaction processing, but these services are a window on the interactive future.

While ITP has assembled a full range of banking, bill paying, transaction settlement, and messaging capability, "our offering is not just technology," Mr. Peyser said. "It is a philosophy of helping the banks. We are a platform for interactive services, of which the first are electronic banking and bill paying."

ITP is offering its logo as a "bug" on the computer screen that can unify the multiple services, but participating banks don't have to use it. In all cases, ITP says it will stay in the background of the bank-customer relationship.

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