After a series of fits and starts with its home banking program, MasterCard International is close to entering strategic partnerships with two software providers, according to sources close to the talks.

MasterCard reportedly has been poised for more than a month to announce deals with Meca Software, maker of the Managing Your Money package, and the banking software provider Servantis Systems Inc.

A MasterCard spokeswoman declined to comment on the reported deals. MasterCard executives, many of whom were preoccupied with MasterCard's move to new headquarters in Purchase, N.Y., could not be reached for comment.

The card association may be delaying disclosure in hopes of signing banks that could help it make a bigger splash, one source suggested. Another contended that the three are merely hashing out the specifics of the partnership.

The deal would completely restructure the card association's MasterBanking program. Some say MasterCard is hoping to breathe new life into a stagnant remote banking program that has fallen short of expectations over the last two years.

MasterCard says it currently provides home banking services to about 50,000 customers through 14 financial institutions with the Excel system it purchased from Chemical Banking Corp. in 1993. Another six financial institutions plan to use the home banking service or are testing it.

But one source involved in the program said the number of bank customers is closer to 10 or 12, and "everyone is in jeopardy of leaving."

Another source in the industry said that close to half the consumers come from one of the banks, Wells Fargo & Co.

Through the three-way alliance, MasterCard could place Meca's Managing Your Money on the consumer front end and let Servantis handle back-end processing - via Amresco, a processor that Servantis recently acquired. Atlanta-based Servantis also makes its own basic home banking consumer software.

The partnership could call into question the relationship between MasterCard and Checkfree Corp., which has handled the payment processing for MasterBanking since the pair struck an exclusive agreement several years ago.

But sources say that the relationship is rocky and neither partner is satisfied with the other's performance.

One industry insider said MasterCard officials have complained that "Checkfree had never met a deadline they were given." He added that Checkfree expected MasterCard to bring more banks to the table.

David Weisman, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., said the pair "never had a tight alliance."

"The Checkfree relationship has not gone as far as they'd like it to," said another source.

But Mr. Weisman cautioned that although Servantis' newly acquired processing unit is "a good company, but very small ... Checkfree has scale."

Mark Johnson, an executive vice president at Checkfree, could not comment on MasterCard's new alliances, but said that Checkfree currently intends to continue its work with MasterCard. He said both Checkfree and MasterCard are "interested in signing up as many banks as we can, and we've had some successes and disappointments in that area."

"Each organization has had its challenges," Mr. Johnson said. "This industry is pretty dynamic."

In May, MasterCard and Checkfree renegotiated their exclusive arrangement, allowing Checkfree to court bank partners on its own. One industry source suggested that Checkfree may develop a more broad-based personal finance software package of its own and make a more concerted effort to engage banks directly, rather than approaching them through alliances.

But MasterCard's struggles in home banking extend beyond payment processing.

Mr. Weisman said the MasterBanking system lacks a shared data base, and hence compatibility, between its personal computer and touch-tone services. At least two sources noted the outmoded nature of the system.

A MasterCard spokeswoman said the card association recently upgraded MasterBanking technology to improve system reliability. It has also moved to improve the way data is backed up, she said.

The deal with Meca and Servantis is only the latest in a string of arrangements the card association has tried to forge over the past year, Mr. Weisman said.

Before Microsoft Corp.'s ill-fated attempt to acquire Intuit Inc., MasterCard had tried to cut a deal to put Microsoft Money on its customer front end, Mr. Weisman said. The Justice Department mentioned this proposed partnership when it scrutinized the Microsoft-Intuit deal.

After its deal with Microsoft fell through, MasterCard approached Novell, which was to have bought the Microsoft Money program if Microsoft acquired Intuit, Mr. Weisman added.

Experts said only time will tell if the new partnership will solve MasterCard's home banking troubles.

"This is a volume game," Mr. Weisman said, "and the fact is, the volume has gone elsewhere."

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