Servantis Systems Inc. said it has agreed to acquire Amresco Services Inc., the home banking transaction processing subsidiary of Amresco Holdings Corp.

The deal, the terms of which were not disclosed, is the latest attempt by a major player in the electronic payments business to position itself for a market that experts predict will expand dramatically over the next few years.

Servantis officials said the acquisition will allow it to provide a service bureau option to banks that may balk at investing in their own systems for home banking. Customers of Austin, Tex.-based Amresco Inc. include NationsBank Corp., Charlotte, N.C., and BankAmerica Corp., San Francisco.

"We become the only vendor with the ability to provide transaction processing, software licensing, and core functional outsourcing for the home banking business," said Robert L. Campbell, Servantis' president and chief executive.

Jim Garrett, senior vice president at the Norcross, Ga., software company, said the acquisition can free Servantis customers' system and support staffs from the transaction processing concerns that have discouraged many banks from exploring the home banking market.

"We have provided most of these (home banking) applications for years to banks," said Mr. Garrett, "but (the banks) have never been able to effectively offer home banking because it ties up all of their computer services."

In light of the acquisition, Servantis will enhance its current home banking applications, including those for bill payment, account funds transfer, stop-payment initiation, interest rate inquiries, and securities investments.

In addition, the vendor plans to develop services that enable consumers to apply for loans electronically. It will also add applications that provide consumers with recommendations on where their money can earn optimum interest.

Although the service will initially use widely accepted front-end devices such as telephones, screen phones, and personal computers, Servantis officials say they believe interactive television will emerge as a common delivery mechanism within about three years.

Interactive television, Mr. Garrett said, "is going to become very significant because cable TV basically offers the same capacity as the fiber optic link and will allow more visual aids in terms of banking by home or shopping by home."

Mr. Campbell said Servantis' acquisition is driven in part by the proliferation of personal computers in the home and by the growing acceptance of software products for personal finances.

Widespread adoption of home banking is inevitable, he said.

"This industry is still in its infancy," said Mr. Campbell, who added that consumers want to do more banking at home.

Many experts agree with this assessment, but some differ on how long it will take for home banking to gain wide acceptance.

"By the turn of the century, you will start to see much stronger evidence of people actually banking at home," said Mark Hardie, a technology analyst with the Tower Group, Wellesley, Mass.

Edward Furash, president of Washington-based consultancy Furash & Co., said the Servantis acquisition "is a very early move in a business that's going to take five to 10 years before it really starts to take off."

Elliot C. McEntee, president and CEO of the National Automated Clearing House Association, Herndon, Va., said, "My guess is that most banks will be offering the service within the next five years."

The clearing house group, which sets the rules for the ACH network, formed a Bill Payments Council in 1993, mainly to address the back-office obstacles related to automated consumer bill payments. The council counts as members several home banking players, including CheckFree Corp., Online Resources and Communications Corp., and Intuit Corp.

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