The Westin St. Francis Hotel, one of the few buildings in San Francisco to survive the 1908 earthquake, opened its ballrooms to the next century as several hundred bankers and technology executives gathered there in June to ponder a future made possible by mobile technology.

Figuring out how to capitalize on the power of financial mobility without ignoring realities like customer acquisition costs is as tough as predicting the next earthquake. SourceMedia's sixth annual Mobile Banking and Commerce Summit came at an inflection point for the industry: banks have spent several years and millions of dollars building must-have mobile applications, only to find themselves chasing a mobile commerce market that's still running away from them.

Consumers are snapping up new mobile apps for shopping and gaming at a pace that has heightened expectations for what should be available to them from their banks. As a result, the future for banks-in which digital games help manage consumer finances, geolocation and barcodes help guide the way to the best deals, and cameras deposit checks-offers both the promise of delivering new services and the pitfalls of competing with venture capital-fed, technologically agile disrupters that range from established telecoms to payments startups.

"I found it fascinating that there are more iPhones sold than there are babies born every day," said Kip Renaud, the online banking bill pay and mobile manager for the $3 billion-asset Delta Community Credit Union in Atlanta, which has more than 200,000 members, mostly employees of Delta Airlines, Chick-fil-A, PetSmart, Aaron's and Nestle's.

Renaud was citing a stat he heard during a conference presentation by Mark Jamison, head of the digital innovation lab at Capital One.

Indeed, Apple disclosed this spring that it sold more than 37 million iPhones globally in the first quarter, or 377,900 iPhones each day of the three-month period. Worldwide birthrates imply that there are 371,000 babies born per day, according to statistics computed by Wolfram Research.

But if the data argues for comprehensive strategies for mobile customers (and the summit was filled with hundreds of participants who would say it certainly does), banks aren't always approaching the mobile channel with the level of thought, preparation and innovation it deserves.

Alejandro Carriles, senior vice president and director of mobile banking and Internet strategy for BBVA Compass, implored his fellow bankers to be more cognizant, for instance, of the different ways customers use different mobile devices.

Carriles proudly demonstrated BBVA's new iPad app during a conference session, showing off tools that allow customers to track personal cash flow as payments and other transactions are executed. But he lamented prevailing tablet app design in banking, which he says still relies heavily on smartphone apps. He showed the audience another tablet app (from an unnamed bank) that had plenty of information and functionality, yet took up only about 20 percent of the screen.

"I can't believe how many people are developing tablets that are a large-screen version of a smartphone app. No, no, no! It's not the same. I don't want to do a financial analysis of my life on a smartphone," Carriles said.

He was nodding to the tablet's usefulness for deeper study of numbers and trends-not just the on-the-fly transactions for which smartphones are so handy.

A bank that has long earned raves for developing a wide variety of remote-access functions, especially suitable for its far-flung customer base, is USAA in San Antonio, which focuses on banking services for military personnel and their families. The $104 billion asset-bank is developing new mobile wallet technology and mobile person-to-person payments. It is also looking into Web video for one-on-one service.

Many of USAA's mobile features are designed to work for customers who are frequently on the move or temporarily deployed overseas. But Neff Hudson, the assistant vice president of emerging channels for USAA, sees an even broader set of benefits stemming from digital banking. He said there's a big opportunity for banks to improve the customer experience by incorporating data-driven personalization into the transaction process or other interactions with customers.

Hudson said one of his key takeaways from the summit came in discussions about the growth of pattern-recognition techniques-for example, optical character recognition that can be used to match customer usage of devices and transaction tendencies to make future marketing efforts more targeted than what was possible in the past.

But not all banks have been as hard-charging in the mobile arena as USAA or U.S. Bank, a subsidiary of the Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, which recently introduced digital watermarks to provide added mobile content to its annual report. (Readers wave their smartphones over digital watermarks and can access video and other visuals prepared especially for the medium.)

"What struck me is the different levels of development of mobile solutions that exist among different banks," said Christopher Peper, vice president and mobile channel manager for the $340 billion-asset U.S. Bank. "There are a number of banks that have very sophisticated solutions, but a number of other banks are just at the beginning of the curve."

As a result, the summit at times felt like a forum for doers to instruct learners. Some themes are universal, however. Peper said he was particularly interested in the discussions about prioritization, with institutions of all sizes and capabilities looking to best match their budgets with technology and their business strategy. "Everyone wants to be seen as innovative. But you have to pick your spots," Peper said.

Tech-related conferences often yield a lot of futuristic talk about far-off ideas. But Mary Monahan, executive vice president and research director at Javelin Strategy & Research, reminded the audience that their innovations are having a real-time impact on customers, who already are proving themselves willing to pay for services that allow them to make deposits by snapping photos of checks with their smartphone cameras. "Mobile remote deposit capture," Monahan said, "is one of the reasons people understand the value of mobile banking."


John Adams is executive editor of Bank Technology News, a SourceMedia publication.