Of all the places offering help to bankers and others interested in new forms of electronic commerce, Commercenet may be among the more hospitable.

It's not that the people there are any less desperate or cutthroat than others staking out positions on the information highway. Commercenet, as one of a new breed of cross-industry consortia, rallies its members around the notion of cooperation.

Its mission is to serve as "a forum for the emerging Internet industry," said Cathy Medich, executive director of the group, which is based in Menlo Park, Calif.

The premise is that many companies from different industries, including some who may be the fiercest of rivals in the conventional business world, can and must reason together to lay a foundation for commerce in cyberspace - namely the World Wide Web of the vast agglomeration of computer networks known as the Internet.

From Commercenet's inception about a year and a half ago, banks figured in an equation that had begun with such Silicon Valley stalwarts as Apple Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Sun Microsystems. At that time, "you couldn't really find a bank on the Internet," Ms. Medich said.

"When Commercenet was proposed," she said, "the idea of using the Web for commerce made people cringe."

Motivated by what they see as potentially limitless markets among the millions of people on-line, and by the fear that some non-bank rival might poach the profits, bankers have been rushing headlong toward computer-based financial services.

Commercenet gave some of them an outlet to do more than just flail at possibilities, and to do so in a spirit of exploration not locked into any single business partner or mode of operation.

About 10 of the fast-growing consortium's 112 members are financial institutions. BankAmerica Corp., Citicorp, and Wells Fargo & Co. joined early; the followers included Banc One Corp. and First Interstate Bancorp.

Assisted by a $6 million, three-year federal government grant, which has been matched by the state of California and a private-sector group called Commercenet Consortium Inc., the effort to begin true Internet commerce has been gaining momentum.

Ms. Medich, recruited in late 1993 by one of the early Commercenet members, had been engineering manager at a San Francisco-area electronics firm. She also has marketing in her background.

She said she jumped at the chance to move from "a flat, declining market" to one that was poised for tremendous growth.

The past year was devoted mainly to educating banks and other Commercenet members about the Internet and the gaps that have to be filled to ensure accuracy and security of transactions.

The group is working on a survey of users to understand their demographics and preferences, and has produced white papers on a range of issues, including how companies can measure their effectiveness in these initiatives.

Moving beyond the basics and toward the necessary communications and payments infrastructure, some banks have begun testing with technology vendors in the group. Under the Commercenet umbrella, Ms. Medich said, are 17 active pilots - such as a Wells Fargo project with Cybercash Inc., a startup company that creates software to encrypt transaction data over the Internet.

Commercenet has 10 working committees, seven with chairmen in place. Of most import to bankers is the payment systems committee, but bankers have been active throughout the organization. They are seen as a unifying force because of the centrality of payments in any electronic commerce framework.

"A lot of technology vendors are pushing product," Ms. Medich said, "whereas the banking industry understands that if you don't have an infrastructure in place, no one wins."

G. Mack Hicks, a vice president of electronic delivery services at BankAmerica, was recently appointed chairman of Commercenet's steering committee. He sees the forum more as a networking opportunity for banks to work with their peers and with vendors than as an essential means of developing standards for Internet commerce.

Bankers are awakening to electronic commerce "because we're starting to see ourselves as more of a fulcrum to do business," he said. But if these efforts are truly going to take hold, he said, the group has to do more in the way of attracting smaller banks and other financial institutions that may not be as Internet-savvy as the BankAmericas and Citibanks.

"It's really nice that the big boys want to play with each other," Mr. Hicks said. "But you get your real economies of scale when you get small and midsize businesses involved."

Randy Kahn, senior vice president in charge of corporate electronic products at First Interstate, agreed that Commercenet needs to broaden its scope. He characterized business on the Internet as a necessity for banks of all sizes, lest they lose out on potential revenue and risk losing some of what they currently have.

"We don't want this to be another mutual fund," Mr. Kahn said, referring to the massive loss of consumer market share in recent years to that form of nonbank competition.

"This is the only place where we sit down together and talk about what needs to be done on the Internet for our industry," he added. Attesting to the Commercenet's effectiveness is the fact that the Financial Servicesc Technology Consortium - a banker-organized forum exploring electronic commerce and other high-tech opportunities - is a member.

On issues relating to competitive advantage, Mr. Kahn said there is not too much of a dilemma in discerning what can and cannot be discussed among rivals. But he conceded that much remains to be agreed upon in terms of general business practices and system standards for the certification and authentication of consumers and merchants.

And while the market heats up, Mr. Kahn warned that banks quickly need to get involved in creating the future electronic payment system if they truly intend to be a part of it.

"It's less important to come to the best answer than that we come to an answer," he said.

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