Even as they struggle to discern the future direction of their consumer delivery systems, financial institutions have already made significant inroads in what may turn out to be, the most sophisticated of the available choices.
That option - the personal computer - is increasingly looking like a mass-market phenomenon that holds great promise for bringing a wide range of banking and payment services into the home.
While some bankers are partial to the cheaper and more elementary screen-enhanced telephones, phones, and others see a more promising if more distant future in interactive television, the PC's rapid growth in American households seems to be generating most of home banking's current potential.
Market research places home-computer penetration at more than one-third of U.S. households, and banks have been looking at them as delivery channels longer than either of the current leading-edge alternatives.
A handful of the, larger and more aggressive institutions, such as Citicorp and Chase Manhattan Corp. have been offering some sort of computer banking option to retail customers for more than a decade.
But these programs had small following, and the products themselves were neither highly developed nor heavily marketed.
In the past couple of years, home banking has seen an unprecedented surge in popularity, albeit from that small base, and bank marketing has been far from the only factor.
The declining price of computer has encouraged many people, especially those who use PCs at work and younger people who become computer literate in school, to view the machine as more of a household appliance.
Software companies like Microsoft and its prospective merger partner Intuit have combined technological and salesmanship savvy to make personal finance a standard part of the PC package.
Meanwhile, banks have either revamped or started to provide PC-based offerings, most often with the help of a software partner or on-line services company, such as Microsoft or Prodigy Services Corp. Microsoft Corp. worked with U.S. Bank of Oregon, First National Bank of Chicago, Michigan National Bank and. most recently Chase Manhattan Corp. to deliver a banking service with the Microsoft Money personal finance software.
Several institutions - including Barnett Banks Inc., Chemical Banking Corp., Banc One Corp., and Meridian Bancorp - have teamed up with Podigy to allow their customers to get basic banking and pay bills on-line.
But these deals represent only a piece of a growing home-banking, pie.
Although much has been made of the threat to financial institutions, that Microsoft and perhaps others may Pose, when banking., moves from physical locations to computer screens, most bankers keeping their options open, wary of missteps that could cause them lasting damage.
Chase made its big splash in home banking in April through an emerging delivery systems unit that is exploring new opportunities in PCs, screen phones, automated teller machine enhancements, self-service kiosks, and elsewhere.
Mark Bums, vice president for on-line services in this chase division, said that while personal computers are becoming more wide spread, Chase does not view them as "a mass-market product" - at least not in their current incarnation.
He says he believes that over the next five years, less than 10% of Chase's customers will use personal computers for access to account counts.
He expects personal computers and telephone-based devices to evolve along a similar path, combining to form a new generation of devices that will provide the best conduit for banking services.
This has not prevented Chase from working with Microsoft on a PC-based banking service. The programs has elicited a stronger customer response in two months than Chase had in 12, years for its prio-generation PC service, called Spectrum.
Chase has signed 4,000 bank customers since it started offering the Microsoft service in October, Mr. Bums said.
The alliance has worked well for Chase, and Mr. Bums dismissed notions that Microsoft is more a foe than supporter of banks.
Many of the fears of Microsoft stem from a magazine article earlier this year in which the company chairman, Bill Gates, called banks "dinosaurs."
"Just remember," Mr. Bums said, "what dinosaurs couldn't eat they walked on."
Beyond avoiding commitment to a single delivery medium, banks like Chase have also espoused a very open and nonexclusive approach to the partners they choose.
Chase is also working with Momentum Inc., a Boston-based company that has developed an attachment for making a telephone work like a screen phone.
Also, Chase has forged ties with Visa International, Intuit, and Novell en Inc. In the fast-paced world of interactive services, the bank is already practically connected to the latter two by association.
Microsoft intends to acquire Intuit, maker of the popular Quicken personal finance software, and Novell agreed to assume ownership of Microsoft's Money software once the Intuit deal is approved.
Linda Parker, the vice president for remote banking at U.S. Ban-corp. another Microsoft partner, agreed that pairing up with a non@ bank player affords financial institutions a better opportunity for success than they would have on their own.
"We clearly could not have done this alone, Ms. Parker said.
Since February, when the Portland, land, Ore-based company began offering PC-based services with Microsoft Money, about 3,300 customers have signed up. they mostly favor a combination of the bank on-line and pay on-line services, which cost $14.95 per month.
"U.S. Bank's strategy is not to place bets on any one device," Parker said, but the personal computer has been the bank's only home banking device so far.
Geography could be a contributing factor to U.S. Bancorp's reliance on the PC. Households Ill the Pacific Northwest have a personal computer. penetration of 45% 10 points higher than the national average, Ms. Parker said.
In addition, 56% of small businesses in the region - home to many software company campuses including Microsoft - own personal computers.
The Northwest's uniqueness aside, U.S. Bank typifies why many banks are relying on PCs to jump-start their home banking programs: The terminals are already available and in many cases are already being used for banking purposes.
"PCs are there," Ms. Parker said. "Interactive TV is a couple of years down the road, and phones are great devices, but they're too expensive."
"There's no homogeneity, as to what consumers want," said Catherine Corby, director of retail strategy at Barnett Banks Inc., which is typical of those keeping their delivery-system options open.
While the Jacksonville, Fla., banking company has been working with Time Warner on its interactive active television demonstration in the Orlando area, Barnett also has made its greatest strides with PC-based services.
Working with Prodigy, the bank has been offering basic banking - including the ability to write electronic checks, transfer funds, and check balances. Ms. Corby would not disclose the number of customers using this service.
"We absolutely see the PC moving into homes. I don't see consumers clamoring for screen phones," Ms. Corby said. "But there is a danger. if the financial institution does not maintain its own identity" and differentiate itself from the competition.
She said Prodigy has been a "very supportive" partner, but Barnett will still play the field in order to develop a full complement of home banking offerings.
With that in mind, bank-related companies are trying to provide a range of services as well.
Visa Interactive, an arm of Visa International, has been working with Block Financial Software to distribute the software vendor's Managing Your Money package through banks.