At the start of 2009, consumers said, almost timidly, that it would be nice to be able to manage their bank accounts with mobile phones. Now, they are demanding such services.
After years of development work by financial companies and vendors, mobile banking is coming of age. Early adopters have quickly come to appreciate the convenience of managing their money anytime, from anywhere, and many observers say that these functions are only the beginning.
"I think we will look back at 2009 as the pivotal year" for mobile banking, said Fred Brothers, the managing partner of the technology consulting firm eCom Advisors in Dublin, Ohio. "I don't think people appreciate that yet."
Doug G. Brown, the senior vice president of product innovation at Bank of America Corp., predicted that many middle-aged consumers would be dragged into the future by their kids, in much the same way as the parental generation has adopted text messaging to stay in touch with their children.
"The younger generation are the early adopters — students and youth," Brown said. "They expect mom and dad to send them money instantly because they know mom and dad can send it using Bank of America mobile banking."
Richard K. Crone, the founder of Crone Consulting LLC, said that mobile banking and payments are taking off much faster than online banking did. People are already comfortable with the idea of managing information with phones, he said, and managing financial details feels like a natural next step to many consumers.
"With online banking, we had to wait for people to get modems in their computers and sign up for online service and get familiar with the process," he said. "None of that is necessary with mobile banking. All you have to do is to create the service."
And if 2009 was the year when mobile banking became commonplace for people who already bank online, Crone said, "the next year won't be about bringing Internet banking customers to the mobile. The next year will be about customers who aren't [banking online] at all."
James Van Dyke, the founder and president of Javelin Strategy and Research, said that phones offer some capabilities that banks cannot deliver through any other channel, notably text-message alerts that can reach customers immediately. Though people can get alerts by e-mail, this is not very useful to those who are not in front of their computers.
However, Van Dyke said, banks' text-message alert services often have room for improvement.
"We're bullish on mobile banking and mobile finance in general," he said, but "there are some very specific areas we've found where they're coming up short."
Whether the user is a consumer or a corporate treasurer, it is difficult to set up mobile alerts for transaction notifications, balance thresholds, overdraft warnings, or other financial matters that the user might want to know about immediately.
In fact, alert adoption has lagged Javelin's expectations, and the blame lies less with the users than with the systems, he said.
"They're just awful," Van Dyke said. "It's all about lousy interfaces. It's not about a lack of interest in using it."
Some companies are making headway on instant notifications. Visa Inc. announced an alliance in November with the mobile banking technology company ClairMail Inc. to deliver Visa alerts at the point of sale.
Cardholders at participating banks can enroll their cards to get text messages confirming transactions, often before the clerk hands over a paper receipt. Visa introduced some alert features in 2008, initially for handsets with Google Inc.'s Android operating system.
Other companies are also rolling out financial tools for phones.
In mid-December, for instance, PayPal Inc. announced that its mobile Send Money application was available for the BlackBerry.
"This app on this device could be one of the inflection points in mobile paymnts," said Brothers of eCom Advisors, in part because it has a potentially huge ready-made user base. PayPal, a unit of the online auctioneer eBay Inc., operates the world's largest person-to-person payment network, and BlackBerry, from Research in Motion Ltd., is the most widely used smart phone among baby boomers and the so-called Generation X. PayPal also opened up its X.com development platform in November, letting outside programmers incorporate PayPal into social networks and growing areas such as mobile payment applications.
Bankers should also look carefully at developments like Square Inc., which in December introduced a card-swipe reader that plugs into the audio jack of a mobile handset, Brothers said. "Sometimes it takes a [nonfinancial-institution] innovator to drag the industry along," he said. "We think this is one of them."
Though many derided the project as half-baked (and Square has shared few details of its business model or technology), observers agreed that the concept is a harbinger of more mobile payments services. Nobody envisioned, either, that an online flea market would emerge as the dynamo that eBay has become, Brothers said.
With its simple design, the Square attachment could potentially make anyone anywhere a card-accepting merchant, he said.
"Square is the canary in the coal mine on the convergence of social networks and social marketing with financial services," Brothers said. "I'm not sure how social networks and financial services emerge out of all this. I'm just sure that it does."