The futuristic management guru Stewart Brand once said information wants to be free. More than one banker has agreed that banking is just one species of information. Would it follow that banking wants to be free? It's panning out that way in the wired world, where Mr. Brand's iron law of networked commerce seems increasingly to apply to new ways of doing old business. Financial service providers, like others who went on-line before them, are waking up to the "freeware" way of life. Netscape Communications Corp. became a household word after it initially offered Navigator software free, helping it become a standard for browsing the Internet's World Wide Web. Cylink Corp., a provider of public key cryptographic systems, recently offered free software licenses in hopes of attracting new customers. AT&T and MCI made big splashes with free or nearly free Internet access packages, as did the Juno electronic mail system, which collects advertising revenue to finance individuals' participation. Netcom On-Line Communications Services Inc. added several enhancements to its personal Internet access program without increasing its $19.95 monthly price for unlimited usage. Fidelity Investments this spring made a special deal with MCI for users of the mutual fund company's Online Investor Center: 20 hours of free Internet access the first month, then $17.95 a month for up to 20 hours, which is a 10% discount. And now banks are falling into the free line. Citibank in New York eliminated electronic-service fees last year, when it had an estimated 45,000 personal computer subscribers. Jim Bruene, publisher of Online Banking Report in Seattle, said the bank is now approaching 200,000 users. Mr. Bruene also noted most of the biggest home banking programs have no basic fee or very low fees, though they can and do charge for add-ons like bill payments. Wells Fargo Bank quadrupled in a year after lowering its monthly charges. "That's the way it is going to go," Mr. Bruene said recently. "Consumers in focus groups say they love the service but don't want to pay for it. They think they are saving banks money by not using branches. "Even if they view it as an added value or convenience in their lives, they are offended by the idea of paying."
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