Microsoft Corp. has given its Internet strategy fresh impetus, saying it is about to offer banks a faster and easier road to the World Wide Web.
The technology, code-named Marble and unveiled at a Microsoft-sponsored conference last week, would link a bank's on-line service to a transaction processor.
Scheduled for full-scale availability in September, Marble is being touted as a leveler of technical obstacles and a furthering of Microsoft's effort to be "bank-friendly."
The system is built around Open Financial Exchange, the technical standard that gained support from much of the remote banking community after Microsoft, Intuit Inc., and Checkfree Corp. introduced it in January.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates himself put the bank-friendly spin on his mission.
"The Internet is a fantastic development for financial institutions," he told about 400 banking, brokerage, and technology people at the Microsoft financial services gathering. "It will allow you to serve your customers in a more customized fashion than ever before, and there's nobody between you and your customers."
Marble operates on the Windows NT computing platform, which is increasingly popular with banks and was aggressively promoted at the conference.
Adherence to Open Financial Exchange, known as OFX, means Marble can offer banks quick and easy connections through the Internet to personal financial management software like Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft's Money, Microsoft executives said.
"Building your own Internet site is not that hard," Mr. Gates said. "The amount of time it takes to build a very effective transactional Web site can be measured in months."
Even banks that already have sophisticated Web sites will find Marble useful, Microsoft officials said. On the "back end" of transactions, the technology would let banks do extensive data mining and offer enhancements that could help banks tailor offerings to customers.
"The bottom line here is that these are very early days in the world of the Internet," Mr. Gates said. "So the opportunity to be a pioneer is pretty incredible."
Bank representatives, who comprised roughly half those at the conference, reacted favorably to Marble.
"We're very interested in it," said Louis Gasparini, vice president of Internet distribution systems at Wells Fargo & Co. "The ability to move to OFX is important to us. We have a lot of Quicken and Money customers."
Though Wells has one of the banking industry's most advanced transactional Web sites, Mr. Gasparini said Marble "opens up a lot of possibilities down the road." Using Marble and embracing the OFX standard, banks could offer immediate settlement of Internet transactions instead of processing them in a delayed, batch mode, he said.
Linda Parker, senior vice president and manager of emerging delivery services for U.S. Bank, a subsidiary of Portland, Ore.-based U.S. Bancorp, said, "Marble is a great announcement.
"To me, this is like when we got a common magnetic stripe on ATM cards 20 years ago. OFX is as significant as that."
Ms. Parker predicted that OFX and Marble would let banks offer more choices to customers: "This is still a very small market, and hopefully this will make it grow."
Colin Henderson, senior marketing manager for Bank of Montreal's remote banking arm, Mbanx, said Marble is "right on the money in terms of what the industry needs."
"Delivery of transactions is at the point of being a commodity," Mr. Henderson said. "The issue is, what are you going to do at the next level, and that's what Marble seems to deliver."
Even executives at Microsoft's archrival, Intuit, sounded approving.
"Getting the specifications to converge is of critical importance to all of us-we don't want to engage in a standards war," said Mike Atwood, general manager of OFX and Internet technology for Intuit.
"Our goal is to expand the market for electronic banking," he said, "and to the extent that a major player is building an OFX server, that makes it easier for financial institutions."
Lewis Levin, vice president of Microsoft's desktop finance division, said Marble was developed in response to bankers' questions about how to get up and running on the Internet. He said the new offering did not step on the toes of other vendors, many of whom were present for the announcement.
To build a transactional Web site with Marble, "some assembly is required, and solution providers provide that assembly," Mr. Levin said.
Field tests of Marble will take place this summer, and Microsoft is encouraging banks to start looking at how the technology could enhance their Web designs. Marble supports all popular browsers, Mr. Levin said.
"We think we're really going to speed up the process and reduce the amount of time it takes to build a really great Web site," said Don McGill, a Microsoft product planner.
Though Microsoft isn't necessarily running other Internet technology providers off the road, a few audience members were skeptical.
"There is really a lot of assembly required" for Marble, said Daniel Jacoby, chief technology officer at Digital Insight, a Web site builder in Camarillo, Calif. "It's not bad architecturally, but you really have to have a detailed knowledge of the architecture of the Internet and the on- line business to figure out how it fits in."