Now that early expectations for wireless banking have diminished, analysts say financial institutions should shift the focus of their wireless offerings from the consumer market to business and workplace applications.

Slow transmission speeds, the absence of a single-network standard in the United States, high costs, and the limitations of the current generation of devices have hindered wireless banking here, analysts say.

The result is that “lots of companies that started out in the mobile space have moved toward more of an enterprise focus,” said Joe Laszlo, a senior analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix. “We’re finding that the fastest adoption of wireless is taking place in more of a business-to-business context than in a business-to-consumer context.”

Seamus McMahon, managing director at the New York consulting firm Novantas, said it is no longer clear that the prime audience for wireless services is or will be consumers. Besides the early adopters and “curiosity seekers,” the services have drawn many consumers who keep closer tabs on their finances, but maintain minimal account balances and generate little profit for financial institutions, Mr. McMahon said.

Institutions could get more profitability from wireless services by targeting professionals such as salespeople, corporate treasurers, and possibly even doctors — “people who are out of their normal places of connectivity but need data quickly,” he said.

But after investing heavily in wireless services geared to the consumer market, some financial services companies are unwilling to switch gears now.

Bank of Montreal, considered to be the North American leader in wireless banking, launched its Veev service in 1999. The service is aimed at consumers and will continue to be, said Mark Dickelman, corporate vice president of mobile commerce and wireless at Bank of Montreal.

“The consumer market continues to be our top priority in the wireless space,” he said. “There’s certainly an industrywide focus on enterprise and B-to-B wireless services, but it’s a very powerful consumer channel, so that continues to be an important aspect of what we’re focusing on.”

As industry barriers are removed, consumers will drive the market for wireless banking, Mr. Dickelman said. When Veev was launched it was available only on one large, cumbersome model of telephone that had to be purchased through the bank, he said. Since then every major cellular carrier in the United States has rolled out or at least announced it is developing mobile services, he said.

Bank of Montreal announced last week that its wireless offering had been broadened to include real-time news feeds, tailored news coverage on topics ranging from sports to politics, and more stock-trading features.

The enhancements are “one of the biggest undertakings” in Bank of Montreal’s move into mobile banking, Mr. Dickelman said. He would not say what they cost.

The bank, like most of its competitors, does not release the numbers of wireless subscribers or comment on usage rates. Mr. Dickelman, quoting information released by Bank of Montreal’s chief executive officer, would say only that Veev had more than 6,000 subscribers at the end of last summer.

“This is an early market, and I think everyone understands that,” he said.

Bank of America Corp. also says it has no plans to redirect its consumer wireless offering. “We remain committed to a consumer wireless strategy,” said Linda Mueller, a spokeswoman for the company. “While we’ve been more conservative in our approach, we do believe demand will materialize.”

Despite having a captive audience of 3.4 million online banking customers, Bank of America has taken a cautious approach to wireless. It did two pilot programs in 1999 — an invitation-only service for private banking clients in Baltimore, Dallas, and Washington, and a transactional service available to Palm VII users in California.

Both pilots are consumer-focused, and the company has no plans to roll out B-to-B or workplace applications.

Bank of America would not disclose the number of users the pilots have attracted, except to say that the California project has several hundred subscribers.

Ms. Mueller said its strategy has been to build wireless infrastructure so that when the expected consumer demand materializes, “we’ll be able to move very aggressively in the market.”

TowerGroup, a Needham, Mass., bank technology research firm, predicts that “workline” applications — mobile applications that serve employees or enterprise users at financial firms — will be a key focus for wireless financial services over the next three to five years, particularly in North America.

North American financial services institutions are about eight to 12 months ahead of their counterparts in other world regions in developing such applications, according to TowerGroup data.

Mr. Laszlo said most large U.S. investment banking firms have adopted wireless applications for their employees, but traditional banks have not. That will change over the next few months, he predicted, as financial institutions look for ways to achieve shorter-term returns on their wireless investments.

“It seems prudent to develop wireless applications first for employees, take advantage of the experience with employee-facing applications, and as consumer demand grows, to start building other applications,” he said. “I think some banks may be going over-enthusiastically toward a consumer-facing application now, when it’s employee applications that will generate faster returns on the investment.”

Still, Bank of Montreal’s investment in Veev will put it ahead of the curve as demand for wireless banking grows, Mr. Laszlo said.

“Maybe what they’re getting from this is some valuable early experience,” he said. “We, along with everyone else, only see the total number of mobile users going up over the next couple of years, and Bank of Montreal is going to be well positioned to take advantage of that.”


From Our Archive

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.