After a delay of more than a year, Intuit Inc. has unveiled an online banking and aggregation system that it says will dramatically improve the way people manage finances online and increase its share among consumers and small businesses, for which its financial applications were once one of the only options available.
The FinanceWorks system provides a set of tools so users can categorize, chart, and project spending across multiple accounts at various institutions — features that are uncommon even among large-bank offerings.
However, observers say that if Intuit hopes to attract users, it needs to improve upon these new capabilities and better integrate them with banks' Web sites.
A few banking companies, such as Wells Fargo & Co., have offered comparable features such as spending charts. Account aggregation, which brings in transactions from outside accounts, has been tried and dropped by several companies but has recently begun to attract renewed interest at nonbank Web sites such as Intuit's Quicken Online.
Brad Smith, Intuit's president and chief executive, said FinanceWorks has the potential to restore the Mountain View, Calif., company's influence in the consumer banking software market.
"Ten years ago it used to be personal finance software on the desktop … and because we didn't find a way to embrace online banking as an additional way of doing that, … online banking won out," Mr. Smith said.
To catch up to the competition, his company bought Digital Insight Corp., which serves small and midsize banks and credit unions, last year for $1.33 billion. Now Intuit hopes to surpass the competition by offering consumers and small businesses services they typically would not be able to get through banks.
"The behavior is naturally moving to banks, and banks are struggling, because they don't have these capabilities," Mr. Smith said. If Intuit can provide those capabilities, it can restore its prominence in the minds of consumers and reach businesses it cannot reach with desktop software, he said.
FinanceWorks is available exclusively through Digital Insight, and 300 of Intuit's 1,800 financial institution clients have signed up to offer the system. Sixty of them have deployed it or begun its implementation.
The integration of FinanceWorks with banking sites is far from seamless; FinanceWorks opens up in a separate window, and users must switch back to the banking site's window to move money or pay bills. The banking site can even time out if the user spends too much time in the FinanceWorks window.
Edward Woods, a senior analyst at Celent, the Boston financial research arm of Marsh & McLennan Cos., said Intuit is at least on the right track.
"Aggregation's going to be important to the future online banking experience," he said. "This is obviously a first step in getting there, but it misses the mark in regard to what it could be."
The consumer version of FinanceWorks was made available this month. The small-business version will follow in December. Intuit once planned to release the consumer version in June of last year, with the small-business version to follow in last fall. In the intervening time, it replaced its initial design with one that resembles Quicken Online and other online aggregation sites, like those run by Wesabe Inc. and Mint Software Inc.
Intuit says the advantages FinanceWorks has over the other aggregation sites include its integration with banking sites, but some elements, such as the ability to pay bills from the FinanceWorks window, are still up to a year away.
Glenn Tom, the senior vice president of consumer solutions at Digital Insight, wrote in an e-mail that during testing, "our customer feedback has not indicated that the current time-out of the [banking site's] window is an issue."
Heritage Bank of Olympia, Wash., has been testing the consumer version of FinanceWorks since last year. Lisa Welander, a senior vice president and the chief information officer of the Heritage Financial Corp. unit, said that even though she would like to see some more features in a later version, the current version adds a lot to her online banking offering.
Some elements, such as the ability to categorize payments automatically by recipient, were not available in the first version that Heritage Bank tested, but over the summer "they dropped the other version, and they switched totally over to the Quicken Online version," she said. "It was much smoother, much quicker."
Mr. Smith said the delay was not just to add features; it stemmed from a clash of the skill sets of the Intuit and Digital Insight teams.
"Our engineers knew nothing about banks, their engineers didn't have a lot of experience building something from scratch that was really easy to use, and that's what took us a year," he said. "Now both teams are humming."
The small-business version has all the tools a business of one or two employees would need, and the goal is to eventually make it suitable for a business of up to 500 employees, Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Woods said that despite his criticism, FinanceWorks "could be successful if it's really pushed." His concern is that, since most aggregation implementations have failed because they were kept separate from the main online banking experience, Intuit's offering could suffer the same fate.
"This is outside that experience, so it's going to be more reliant on the banks' marketing of it than its ability to stand on its own," he said.
George Tubin, a senior research director at TowerGroup Inc., a Needham, Mass., independent research firm owned by MasterCard Inc., agreed that FinanceWorks needs to be better integrated with bank sites.
"I think a real best-in-class [product], and what would get the highest use and get the highest satisfaction is something that's fully actionable," he said.
Still, the small banks Intuit serves will benefit from the current version of FinanceWorks, Mr. Tubin said. "Putting this out there to the smaller banks helps them catch up."