Operating problems last week in the Checkfree Holdings Corp. bill payment system forced several big, technology-savvy banks into a somewhat embarrassing apology mode.
But if other recent reliability problems in the on-line brokerage industry are any indication, it may not matter much.
There seems to be no letup in Internet trading momentum. Customers are still flocking to trade on-line, and the stocks of companies such as E- Trade Group and Charles Schwab & Co. continue to soar.
Electronic banking enthusiasts may be just as likely to shrug the whole thing off.
There may be short-term irritations, though. Delayed bill payments trigger penalty charges, and some banks affected by the Checkfree glitches are working to get them waived for their customers.
Experts say that as long as cases like this remain isolated, the damage will be contained. In marketing parlance, on-line financial customers are for the most part "early adopters," people who are accustomed to glitches and willing to tolerate them as a consequence of being on the leading edge of service convenience.
William Cline, an Andersen Consulting partner, called the brokerage outages "a blip on the radar screen." They would be "more meaningful" if repeated, he said. Perhaps the same holds true for banking by personal computer.
Alan Alper, an analyst at Gomez Advisors Inc. in Concord, Mass., said the first generation of Web customers simply accepts some of the Internet's inevitable growing pains.
At the same time, the snags "give the industry somewhat of a black mark at a time when it is finally maturing," Mr. Alper said. "This is the year on-line bill payment appears to be actually taking off."
"The consumer is more forgiving than a business customer would be," said Joel Friedman, head of Andersen's worldwide financial industry practice.
Checkfree, based in Atlanta, said Friday that it was close to fixing the intermittent outages that first cropped up last Monday.
The outages made some of the 500,000 customers of 21 banks-those who use Microsoft Money and Intuit Quicken software-unable to gain access to bill- paying services. The banks had been converted to a new Checkfree processing system called Genesis.
Customers of about 330 other institutions using Checkfree's older platforms did not run into trouble.
First Union Corp., one of the banks affected, created a page on its Web site providing twice-daily updates and listing alternatives for managing on-line accounts. It e-mailed alerts to all customers who might have been affected. The bank also is negotiating to have Checkfree notify merchants not to charge late fees when electronic payments are delayed.
Another affected bank, Wells Fargo & Co., said it waived its monthly fee for users of Quicken and Money.
Relatively few on-line customers may have been affected. Bank One Corp. said 55,000 of its 325,000 on-line enrollees connect via their personal financial management software.
"We feel strongly this won't shake the confidence our customers have in on-line banking," said a First Union spokeswoman. "This is the first time in more than three years where we've had a significant outage like this."
She echoed analysts who said the technical snafus are not likely to damage the long-term growth of on-line banking.
James Marks, an analyst at Deutsche Bank Securities in New York, said, "No conversion works seamlessly, so this is not really a big deal."
Checkfree had been in the process of switching the banks to Genesis for six months before the problems emerged, said a Checkfree spokeswoman. Banks were switched one at a time in an effort to avoid technical problems, she said.
Genesis, announced 18 months ago, is designed to integrate Checkfree processing that was previously performed at three different locations. It also supports the Open Financial Exchange technical standard, which provides flexibility in sharing data among many different financial service providers.
In a statement Thursday, Checkfree chief operating officer Pete Sinisgalli expressed the company's "utmost confidence in the reliability and scalability of Genesis." He conceded it is "a very large, robust, and relatively new system" with which "we have experienced several operational challenges."
"Since we became aware of this issue on Monday, Checkfree's technical staff has been working around the clock to identify the root cause of the problem" in hopes of quickly restoring uninterrupted service, he said.