Credit card issuers on the Internet are about where home banking providers were three years ago: trying to turn boilerplate pages into inviting and customized transaction sites.
Within a year, industry experts predict, many card customers will be able to view and sort through several months of account records and pay their bills on-line.
But even as credit cards have established themselves as the most popular payment choice in Internet commerce, services provided directly by issuers to their cardholders have lagged.
If credit card account and billing information exists on the Internet, it is most likely as part of a home banking program. Only a few companies have put on-line the variety and depth of services that people have come to expect in banking or stock trading.
"Credit card issuers are facing the same challenge that the retail banks have realized they face-either you can be on the Web, or you can let your customer go someplace else," said Randall O. Kahn, president of First Data Direct Banking, a unit of First Data Corp. "The key isn't adopting the technology, it's building literacy into your organization around this new delivery channel."
At first blush, providing Internet account access seems like a natural step. Because most cardholders do not seek out face-to-face service, it is less of a leap from mailed to electronic statements than it is from branch to personal-computer banking.
But various complications, both technical and strategic, seem to have held credit card issuers back.
Some bankers just believe they can target their marketing more precisely by mail.
Many companies invite electronic applications from Web surfers, a practice that leads to high fraud and rejection rates. MBNA Corp., one of the few to disclose its experiences, turns away 80% of Internet card applicants.
Few card companies that post advertising banners on Web sites process the applications right away. NextCard Visa, a collaboration of a software company and Heritage Bank of Commerce of Santa Clara, Calif., is the only one that boasts instantaneous decision-making.
"Account acquisition on the Web is so hard to do that few people are actually doing it," said Ron Rock, vice president of electronic services at Pegasystems Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., a customer-support software company that has designed a system for card issuers on the Internet.
Most issuers put their Internet applications in a batch, "then they literally print them out" and handle them as they would mail-in items, said Mr. Rock, former vice president of electronic financial services at Advanta Corp.
"Have you really provided any differentiated value to the consumer?" Mr. Rock asked. "Have you gained any efficiencies in the process? Have you done a better job in targeting your customers?"
Mr. Rock said the common aspiration is to let customers "click on the application, get a real-time decision, get an account number, and use that number to shop" right away.
On the account access and customer-service side, card issuers are hampered by the fact that billing data are often in the control of third- party processors.
The seemingly simple idea of letting customers view six months of credit card purchases may actually be a logistical nightmare.
Even a look at the most recent month's postings can be "a real bear," Mr. Rock said. A bank that has monthly billing cycles starting every day "has to ask, 'Where is this customer's transaction record? What day did she cycle? Did we get the tapes in? Did we load them up? Were there any technical difficulties?'"
Variabilities in the timing of batch processing may mean that the information available on the Web differs from that given over the telephone.
"Imagine the catastrophe, legally or otherwise, if I approved you for a credit line on the Web but turned you down on the phone," Mr. Rock said.
American Express Co. was one of the first to offer on-line card account access. It did so in January 1995 through America Online, then on the Internet in April 1997. The company also offers on-line travel booking and brokerage services.
"We are always looking to enhance" card member services, said Amex spokeswoman Molly Faust.
"In the beginning you could only check Membership Rewards and account information, then we added the ability to pay" card bills.
Bank of America delivers six months of account information on the Internet, lets cardholders correspond with customer service by e-mail and view recent transactions in detail.
First USA, a Bank One Corp. unit, gives the last three statements, available credit lines, confirmations of receipt of payments, and lists of transactions posted since the last statement.
It also lets customers download card transactions into personal financial management software.
The Discover Card of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. offers on-line bill payment and transaction records.
The only customers of Chase Manhattan Corp. and Citibank, among other institutions, who can view credit card account information on-line are demand deposit account holders enrolled in a PC banking service.
Some of the largest issuers, including Capital One Financial Corp. and MBNA, do not give Internet access at all. Both of those allow applications on the Web, and Capital One lets customers send e-mail questions about their accounts.
In another example, Providian Financial Corp., the secured card specialist, does not even enable on-line credit card account applications.
A section of its Web site dedicated to credit cards says information on the company's Visa and MasterCard products is "coming soon."
NextCard, a creation of Internet Access Financial Corp. of San Francisco, is generally considered the industry leader in account access and on-line applications.
Customers can see a year's worth of statements and can sort them by month, size, or product category. They can transfer the information into the Quicken or Money financial software packages, said Jeremy Lent, chief executive officer of Internet Access Financial.
"You need to be very Internet-focused to pull this off because it's very complex," said Mr. Lent, whose company, founded in 1996, relies on First Data's Netprecision system.
"It's not just a matter of having the technology solution.
"The banks need to pull all the different elements together," Mr. Lent added. "The credit approval person says, 'Wait a minute; we can't just apply the same old rules on the Internet.' The marketing person says, 'We have to customize.' The counsel says, 'We have Regulation Z rules.' Then the technology people are worried about security."
Though not disclosing NextCard's account figures, Mr. Lent said more than 500,000 have applied, and Heritage Bank of Commerce of Santa Clara, Calif., the issuer, is getting about $15 million a month in balance transfers.
Two Atlanta-based banks that were created for the Internet-NetBank Inc. and Security First Network Bank, which was recently acquired by Royal Bank of Canada - both issue credit cards and list transactions over the Web, but just for their banking customers.
"We are not putting (cards) out there for the world," said Donald Shapleigh, president and chief operating officer of NetBank.
"If I stuck an application on the Internet, we'd get hundreds and thousands of applications, and we'd end up turning most of them down."
Security First's Visa is "the only card on the market that offers electronic bill presentment over the Internet," said Eric Hartz, the company's chief operating officer.
"If you have a Security First checking account, you can set up your card to automatically be paid each month on the day it is due," Mr. Hartz said. "Even if the Visa bill is not set up for automatic monthly payments, an automatic 'payment due' flag will notify customers that a payment is required."
Not everyone sees the need for elaborate card services on the Internet.
"There is more of a drive on the bank side, because people want to know what their balance is and want to transfer funds," said Robert Landry, a consultant with Tower Group in Newton, Mass. "On the credit card side, I don't think people are as concerned about their balances-it doesn't have the same value to the consumer."
Some companies are focusing on different ways to enhance card services on the Internet. Corporate and purchasing card issuers such as Paymentech Inc. and U.S. Bancorp offer elaborate programs for clients to track expenditures.
Citibank and Wells Fargo & Co. have experimented with loading of cash on smart cards.
But the largest numbers of cards, and the most initial Internet service activity, are traditional.
"I think you're going to see a lot of movement here in the next 12 months," said Mr. Kahn of First Data. "People whose doors we used to knock on are now knocking on ours."
First Data is offering Internet products specifically for credit cards and brokerage. The pressing need for year-2000 conversions may be stalling some plans, the vendors said, but enthusiasm is on the rise.
"We have begun seeing a lot of requests for proposals, primarily around account access," said Lucinda Duncalfe, chief executive officer of Destiny Software.
The Conshohocken, Pa., company, like Incurrent Corp. of Parsippany, N.J., specializes in helping card issuers post transactional Web sites.
Incurrent president and CEO Mark Betz views the Internet as "a much richer and more functional extension" of the voice response unit.
"Even among the largest banks there is a dearth of internal resources" for developing on-line credit card services, Mr. Betz said.
"But there is a desire to get out there and be competitive with this technology now, and some of the largest banks have come to us to begin the dialogue about this technology."
Incurrent's clients include Partners First, a joint venture formed last year by BankBoston Corp. and Bank of Montreal; Alliance Data Systems, a retailing card specialist; and First Financial Bank of South Dakota. Mr. Betz said he soon will announce a client among the card industry's top 10.
Destiny clients include Bank of America, First USA, GE Capital, Advanta, and Northern Trust Co.
Ms. Duncalfe said the Internet "forces issuers to look at things from a customer's vantage point. It was one thing to get different paper statements for your credit card and demand deposit and trust accounts, but that paradigm doesn't work on the Web. A customer doesn't understand why all those different systems don't interrelate."
From a bank's perspective, the Internet could prove useful for testing card offers and tracking customer behavior, Ms. Duncalfe said.
"If you're seeing much higher hit rates with an offer that has better rewards and an annual fee, you can create a new application for an offer and replace the old one," she said.
Gary Craft, electronic commerce analyst at BancBoston Robertson Stephens in San Francisco, said a superior credit card service on-line could foster customer loyalty.
"In the bill presentment area, the credit card statement is one of the key drivers here for banks," he said.
"They should be presenting their credit card bills to customers on the Internet."