Third-party providers of home banking services are switching to platforms that can handle transactions from various kinds of input devices.
Bankers and other industry participants agree that device-independent approaches to home banking - which pave the way for consumers to choose among delivery options including touch-tone telephones, screen phones, and personal computers - are probably the best way to attract customers.
"The major players are all talking about this," said Joe Brownsted, managing director of Interactive Transaction Partners, a home services company jointly owned by Electronic Data Systems Corp., US West, and France Telecom. Interactive provides home banking access through telephones, screen phones, and PCs.
Several of the most visible providers of home banking services to banks are already supporting, or plan to support, the multidevice approach.
In addition to Interactive Transaction Partners, the group includes Online Resources and Communications Corp., Visa Interactive, and CFI ProServices Inc.
The development of such systems is growing into one of the central issues confronting banks as they scramble for position in the interactive financial services market.
At the heart of the device-independent approach is the use of a common customer information data base that runs applications through the various devices.
Without this integrated capability, banks wanting to offer home banking services through more than one device would have to process transactions hailing from different platforms independent of one another.
The integrated capability, though not yet a major concern among banks, is becoming more critical as the home banking market develops, said James Beans, a technology analyst with Tower Group, Wellesley, Mass.
Many banks are still testing the home banking waters, and "consumers aren't exactly beating on any doors," for the services, he said, noting that only about one million users make up the market for home banking and bill payment.
But as more banks begin to roll out large-scale, mass-market services, the capability will become important, he said. "Banks realize that customers have different device preferences that must be addressed," he said.
"To provide services that don't reflect transactions on every device would be very inconvenient for consumers."
Running nonintegrated home banking systems that use separate computer servers would also raise the cost of implementation - a particular concern to smaller banks, said Mr. Beans.
The integrated capability will have to become standard in the industry for home banking to succeed, said Mr. Brownsted.
Interactive Transaction Partners first introduced the integrated capability in the fall, and is in the process of rolling out service to 12 financial institutions.
Other third-party interactive providers are developing this capability as well.
Mclean, Va.-based Online Resources, which began offering interactive services through screen phones in 1992, recently made available a touch tone-based bill payment service that will be integrated into its existing home banking platform. Later this year, the company will also integrate Windows PC access into its service.
"Our plan has always been to offer banks a system where all devices conduct transactions through the same platform and in real-time," said Matthew P. Lawlor, Online's chairman and chief executive. "That way, consumers know exactly what's in their accounts at any moment."
The company is currently working with eight financial institutions. One of them, NationsBank Corp., has been offering screen phone-based services in the Washington-Baltimore region for several years.
Mark Johnston, director of marketing, at Portland, Ore.-based CFI, said bankers are beginning to ask providers if they support the integrated capability, particularly for bill payment.
"Banks are concerned with this because they want to be able to reach the widest possible base of consumers," he said. "Multiple devices coming through a common system is where we need to be."
CFI already provides integrated service through kiosks, PCs, and personal digital assistants, and is adding touchtone phone access within the next several months, he said.
Tower Group's Mr. Beans contends that no provider yet has a huge lead over the others. "The dust is still settling out there," he said.