Please bear with me if I sound a bit grumpy this month. As someone who has read umpteen analyses of online banking in recent weeks, I suppose I've grown a tad weary of all-too-common knowledge masquerading as insight, couched (as it invariably is) in I could've told you terms.
In the case of online banking, hindsight is a dangerous thing, in part, of course, because the history involved is limited, but also because the subject itself is a moving target. Internet banking is about banking, not bells and whistles. The technology behind it-a moving target itself-is routinely assessed in the abstract, with the inevitable confusion of messenger and message.
Case in point: the so-far spotty use of the Internet to apply for loans, pay bills or complete other substantive financial transactions vs. the relatively widespread use of the Net to simply check account balances or transfer funds from, say, checking to savings.
You can find plenty of consultants who will happily hold forth-for page after page, as it were-on the customer demand dynamic behind this state of affairs. And while such analysis is valid, to be sure, and potentially quite telling, the analysts frequently forget to throw in another crucial dynamic; namely, that lots of banks' Web sites enable customers to check their balances and transfer funds between accounts, but far fewer sites give users the capability of applying for a loan online.
And bill payment? While it's true that numerous banks offer their customers electronic bill presentment and payment services-for a fee- those same customers can go to their telephone or power company's site, enter their bank's routing number and their own checking account number, and enjoy only slightly less convenience at considerably less cost.
The technology is essentially the same in both instances. The difference, I suspect, has nothing to do with customers' hesitance to use the Internet for banking and everything to do with customers' hesitance to pay an extra $10 or $15 a month to spare themselves a few extra clicks.
But, hey, enough grumping. The consultants of the world have to make a living, too, and perhaps it's just a fact of life that some of them are going to manage to do so by telling bankers what bankers already know.
Besides, there is much that is encouraging when one assays the state of online banking today, particularly in the United States. Not least among the good news is that bankers tend to be a pretty smart bunch, and they clearly have recognized that cyberspace represents enormous potential.
The smartest among them also have recognized that online banking has no clothes. A flashy Web site with limited functionality will be found out soon enough. It's the products and services, not the channel through which they're purchased, that still matter most.
David Rountree is the editor of Bank Technology News.