Inet, a consortium being formed by at least 18 major banks, will begin offering home banking services by the end of this year, according to sources close to the venture.
After months in the planning stages and with strong support from International Business Machines Corp., the alliance is expected to shake up a business currently dominated by the powerful software suppliers Microsoft Corp. and Intuit Inc.
A formal announcement of the organization is expected next month.
The member banks are leaders in their respective retail markets, together serving almost two-thirds of bank customers in the United States and Canada, the sources said.
Promising a high degree of control afforded by bank ownership, Inet's organizers are touting flexibility in back-office processing options. The consortium is also likely to provide software that is "bank-branded," without the distractions of names like Microsoft's Money or Intuit's Quicken.
"It is getting good reviews from the banks and investors," said Phoebe Simpson, an analyst at Jupiter Communications in New York. She rated Inet "a stronger move than it first appeared."
Customers of participating banks will be free to use almost any home banking software, including a new product to be introduced by IBM, said officials close to the consortium.
While business proposals and prospectuses have been circulating among the banking elite for some time, word of Inet began to spread more widely in May after NationsBank Corp. chairman Hugh L. McColl mentioned it in a meeting with editors and reporters of The Washington Post.
Because of Mr. McColl's involvement, there was assumed to be a close connection - now seen as more tenuous - between Inet and Meca Software.
Meca, whose Managing Your Money software competes with Money and Quicken in the personal finance market, is owned by NationsBank, BankAmerica Corp., Fleet Financial Group Inc., First Bank System Inc., and Royal Bank of Canada. All five are in the Inet group.
Managing Your Money has an estimated 600,000 customers, well behind the nine million claimed for Quicken and 1.5 million with Money.
Like Meca, Inet will control the channels connecting customers and financial institutions. But Inet will not favor any one software package over another - leaving banks the freedom to offer customers as many choices as they wish.
Inet's potential user base could number in the tens of millions. Other participants include Barnett Banks Inc., KeyCorp, Banc One Corp., and Bank of Boston Corp.
Of those, only the last two publicly confirmed its involvement. Robert Shay, director of self-service banking at what is to become BankBoston, said: "Inet is designed to be like a utility. Not everyone has to string the wires. That way we can plug into a network for communication and focus on the customer interface."
"We are trying to get this thing out the door," said Ian Colley, a spokesman for IBM. He declined to identify other participating banks, citing contractual antidisclosure provisions.
"They want to keep it close to the vest," said Meca chief executive Paul Harrison. "They don't want the overzealous type associated with it. When the product is ready and they have a firm release date, they'll make the announcement."
The number of participants could go beyond 18 even before the public unveiling. Banks that decline to take an ownership position in Inet now will not be admitted later on, said a knowledgeable source.
People close to the venture claimed it will be unique in offering a range of electronic commerce capabilities, including on-line bill payments and ticket sales to credit card customers.
Inet's electronic backbone will be the IBM Global Network, a private communications channel that may give the users more assurance about security than they would have on the Internet. But that decision was questioned by one analyst.
"There are places in the world where (a private network) may make a lot of sense, but I am unclear that that is true in the U.S.," said George T. Kivel at Tower Group in Wellesley, Mass.
"If the advantage is security, it is quickly being addressed" on the Net, he said. "It will cease to be an issue quicker than it will take the Inet consortium to agree and deliver."