London-based software company Financial Objects plc launched its ActiveBank S2 banking platform in January to considerable success. The three-tier client/server system, based on Windows NT, provides real-time multi-currency functionality and supports a variety of core electronic banking services.
The component-based package represents an attempt to address an ever-present challenge faced by software vendors: delivering customized industry-specific software on time. Many financial institutions have lavished months or years on new technology only to see it become obsolete before reaching the desktop.
Steve Mitchell, director of sales for Financial Objects, says former ACT Chairman Roger Foster focused on three technology trends under way at the time he founded the banking and software services company in November 1995. The first two, the Internet and the Windows NT operating system, undeniably changed the IT landscape. But perhaps even more groundbreaking was the emergence of component-based application development. The technique of building tools out of re-usable software components that can be quickly adapted to a variety of application needs represented a drastic departure from traditional methods of software development, which was slow, costly, and cumbersome. "That's where Financial Objects started-the idea of building systems using Internet-enabled components," Mitchell says.
ActiveBank S2 comprises a set of reusable packets of code that conform to the Common Object Module (COM), a programming standard that delineates the communication interface for one piece of software to exchange information with another. COM also makes for consistency in software design while eliminating the need for application developers to distinguish between library and system components. "We've taken absolutely everything that the customer sees-the inquiries, the inputs, the report writing, the navigation and validation-and we've reengineered and re-developed it using these ActiveBank reusable Internet components," Mitchell says.
Visually, the S2 user interface sports a Windows 98 look and Internet-enabled navigation. A neat feature enables the software to detect a client system's native language and adapt accordingly. But most notable is a "heavy lifting" utility that uses the Internet as a lever to move front-office transactions very much further into the user perspective.
"Traditionally a wholesale banking application may very well have a front end that tends to perform some middle- and back-office functions as well," Mitchell says. "But what ActiveBank S2 does through its Internet capability is to provide access to accounts from any location. This means that straight-through processing is just completely transformed," he says. "We've moved the process into the customer world and into a leading edge of the front office."
In creating ActiveBank S2, an early key acquisition for Financial Objects was international banking systems company IBIS Ltd. The deal resulted in the integration of the AS/400-based IBIS wholesale banking package, with its more than 60 integrated front-office dealer and teller support systems. Basing the platform on IBIS meant that the technology would benefit from the breadth and the depth of its functionality, as well as a solid user base.
"What S2 has done is really marry both the IBIS product and the Internet-enabled components and create something which we think is pretty unique on the market," Mitchell says. "So now what you have is a very 'new technology' looking product, but behind it is a tried-and-true transaction processor running very much in the way that it has for years." Financial Objects still sells and support IBIS server line.
Lloyds TSB, of London, a former IBIS customers, turned to ActiveBank S2 because it offered enhanced functionality and flexibility at a reasonable cost, says Martin Fricker, Lloyds' head of treasury and international security in Jersey. "We had used IBIS banking software for ten years and found it to be very reliable, but perhaps a little weak on adapting its functionality in coping with an ever-changing and more competitive banking environment," he explains. "Because of the technologies that ActiveBank uses, it offers us the ability to be more flexible and adaptable, and to develop services at a lower cost than having to hardcode programs a mainframe computer."