Jockeying for position in the electronic commerce market, Intuit Inc. announced Thursday that it would provide Internet access through its Quicken personal finance software.
For those who use Quicken for on-line banking - even those without an on-line service or Internet account - the announcement means free access to Intuit's site on the World Wide Web. Quicken users can also pay for full Internet access through Quicken.
This is made possible by a Netscape Communications Corp. browser program incorporated into Quicken, which is the nation's leading personal finance software.
"By integrating the Web browser, they've changed the whole paradigm of how people do banking," said David Weisman, an analyst for Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrestor Research. "Microsoft, Visa, and MasterCard all seem way behind where Intuit is."
The effort is the Palo Alto, Calif.-based software maker's first step beyond basic on-line bank access and lays the groundwork for entry into electronic commerce and the rich revenue streams it promises to create.
But for financial institutions, Mr. Weisman cautioned, these new developments are "a double-edged sword."
Though the Internet access gives banks another outlet for reaching existing customers and marketing to potential ones, the move makes Intuit "more central to the bank customer."
Intuit seems ideally positioned to build itself into a transaction powerhouse, an Internet clearing house of sorts, that would reap a gateway fee on every on-line transaction it handles, according to Mr. Weisman.
Intuit owns Intuit Services Corp., the bill payment processor through which all of Quicken's transactions are processed. Intuit Services also handles transactions from Microsoft Corp.'s Money.
More than 20 banks and financial service companies since July have agreed to offer their customers on-line banking services through Quicken - most beginning by the end of this month.
Intuit's Web site is set to go live on Oct. 26 - the same day as the new Quicken debuts. It is slated to contain 1,000 pages of information, including an on-line directory of Quicken's financial service partners.
Through Intuit's relationship with Concentric Network, the Internet access provider that connects Quicken users to Intuit's Web site, customers will also have the option of paying for full Internet access through their personal finance software.
This offer includes two pricing plans. The first charges a flat $1.95 per hour of Internet access. The second "frequent user" plan costs $9.95 per month for the first seven hours and $1.95 for each hour thereafter.
Scott Cook, Intuit's chairman and chief executive, has long voiced a strong interest in offering broader services over the Internet.
As opposed to the on-line networks - like the one recently launched by Microsoft - the Internet is less proprietary and more open.
Though its lack of structure and security may make the Internet a difficult avenue for electronic commerce right now, many industry observers see it as the transaction conduit of the future.
The sensitive information conveyed in Intuit's on-line banking service is still handled through a private network. But someday, company officials say, it will all be connected to the Internet.
"The world is moving toward the open world of the Internet, not closed on-line services," Mr. Weisman said.
"I'm not here to say the Internet is ready for prime time," said William H. Harris, an executive vice president for Intuit. "But we anticipate it being ready soon."