Bankers and technology vendors are rethinking their approach to delivering financial services through mobile phones.
The early thinking focused on creating a single application with many capabilities, much like an online banking site that can be accessed through a phone. But with more smart phones and operating systems coming to market, financial companies and vendors are developing a growing number of customized applications for more specific tasks, from making payments to finding an automated teller machine.
As a result, mobile banking technology is starting to look less like a Swiss army knife and more like a ring of keys storing a variety of functions.
Perhaps the best example: Citigroup Inc. is offering three mobile financial tools, each for a different purpose, and it has several more in the works.
Steven Kietz, the chief executive of Mobile Money Ventures LLC, Citi's joint venture with South Korea's SK Telecom Co. Ltd., said in an interview last week that large, monolithic applications do not let customers bank through their phones in the manner that best suits to their individual needs.
Offering multiple applications will "let the customers use the features they want in the way that is most convenient for them," Mr. Kietz said.
Citi's offerings include a mobile banking application, using software from mFoundry Inc., for demand deposit account holders, and a tool, based on technology from Qualcomm Inc.'s Firethorn Holdings LLC, that lets customers manage credit card accounts.
In addition, Citi was the first banking company to integrate mobile person-to-person payments into its demand deposit accounts through a partnership with Obopay Inc., that uses either a downloadable application or text messaging.
Mr. Kietz, who was also a Citi executive vice president and the general manager of growth ventures and innovation in its global consumer group until last week, said the New York company is planning to roll out more applications that will likely function separately.
These will include software customized for Apple Inc.'s iPhone, a version of its online banking service designed to work with the browsers built into phones, and "more specialized applications on the small-business and commercial side," Mr. Kietz said, though it is too early to discuss details of those plans. "We have many new access points coming."
Bank of America Corp., one of the leading advocates of mobile phone browsers instead of specialized applications, has developed a pair of specialized applications: one for the iPhone and one for Google Inc.'s Android mobile phone operating system. The applications are designed to take advantage of the global positioning system chips in the handsets to show nearby branches and ATMs; they can also launch a phone's browser and B of A's mobile banking tool.
"The rationale behind launching this application is that this offers one place for customers to access mobile banking, as well as to find the nearest Bank of America locations," a spokeswoman for the Charlotte company wrote in an e-mail.
Analysts said that the mobile market is still evolving, and that bankers must develop a variety of tools and delivery methods to determine how customers want to use their handsets.
"You've got to throw a lot of stuff out there against the wall before you can see what sticks," said Emmett Higdon, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "We're still too far out in front of the customers here. What can the customers really do with it today? Very, very little, even if they understood what they could do."
Drew Sievers, mFoundry's chief executive and co-founder, said the goal should be to establish common standards that bankers and other developers could use for a wide range of applications.
"A bank can have a single code base that works on a lot of phones," Mr. Sievers said.
Mr. Kietz compared the idea of a single, all-inclusive mobile offering to the accounts that banks tried to popularize years ago to give customers a single statement incorporating checking, savings, credit, and investment accounts.
The one-size fits all approach proved not to be the answer then, he said, and it seems that the same is true with mobile banking now, because different people have different needs. "If a customer wants to have a way to quickly do funds transfer to a child at college, or to pay a nanny and use our P-to-P, or quick access to bill pay, well, it will be the customer-driven marketing, the customer-driven use case, that will drive it."