MUNICH Natwest Group and Industrial Bank of Japan have agreed to join Identrus, the multinational banking consortium that is seeking to provide security assurances for business-to-business commerce over the Internet.
The two banking companies said this week that they will join as equity investors after receipt of final regulatory and investor approvals. They would bring the number of Identrus owner-members to 11.
The signing of Natwest was regarded as particularly significant. The London-based banking group spearheaded the development of the Global Trust Authority, an organization of 15 banks and bank associations that announced its formation last week. The authority is similar to Identrus in that its goal is to set up a system to authenticate trading partners' identities over the Internet.
Signing up Natwest "speaks louder than anything else," said Mary McKenney, principal for global institutional services at Deutsche Bank, which is also a member of Identrus.
John Tunstall, acting general secretary of the Global Trust Authority and the consultant hired by Natwest to create it, said Natwest "is taking every opportunity to experiment with electronic commerce." He indicated that Identrus and the Global Trust Authority would seek to work together once that latter group is done developing its technical infrastructure and operating rules.
"It doesn't make sense for two banking groups to go in different directions," Mr. Tunstall said.
Identrus' expanding ownership group, along with fourth-quarter pilots it has scheduled are signs that the initiative is gaining momentum and could thrive where previous bank-owned consortiums have failed.
The formation of Identrus was formally announced 11 months ago. It was originally referred to as the global trust organization, but in April it took a limited liability company charter under the Identrus name. The founders -- ABN Amro, Bank of America, Barclays Bank, Chase Manhattan Bank, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank (its acquisition, Bankers Trust Corp., was also a founding member), and HypoVereinsbank -- completed building and testing the Identrus digital certificate infrastructure this summer.
The group is now embarking on various tests of digital certificate issuance to corporate customers. Live electronic commerce applications are to begin in the first quarter of next year. A pair of second-wave investors in Identrus -- Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Sanwa Bank -- plan to follow close behind with similar trials.
"We have set aggressive time lines to move this forward," said Guy Tallent, president and chief executive officer of Identrus.
Other bank-owned consortia have floundered under the weight of conflicting agendas, fuzzy objectives, and confused management. For example, Edibanx, a group of U.S. banks that aimed to bypass the automated clearing house and execute electronic data interchange transactions directly, lacked a clear business proposition, critics said.
In consumer on-line banking, the Integrion group this year reduced its ownership group from 17 members to four in an attempt to improve its focus.
"Identrus is going extremely well," Ms. McKenney said during SIBOS '99, an international banking technology conference sponsored by the Swift communications network. She attributed that to a balanced blend of technology and business perspectives.
"The business side saw the opportunity," she said.
By laying down the rules for owner-participants early and establishing objectives quickly, Identrus may get around many of the problems that can befall such an enterprise.
"To be an investor, you must deploy," which automatically requires membership commitment, Mr. Tallent said.
The group also helped its cause by determining at an early stage how its members would collaborate and in which areas they would compete, Mr. Tallent said. "That is a decision you can't put off," he said. "You can't leave that ambiguous."
The banks are cooperating on technical standards, legal requirements, risk management routines, interoperability, the handling of disputes, and the verification of certificates.
At SIBOS, Sun Microsystems Inc. declared that its Solaris operating system and SunConnect architecture were ready for Identrus operations.
ABN Amro is using Solaris to support its Identrus pilot as well as applications that it expects to roll out early next year, said David Littlewood, director of the banking and payments group in Sun's worldwide financial services industry division.
Barclays Bank is using SunConnect to support an Identrus pilot that lets self-employed individuals digitally sign registration forms with three tax-related government agencies in the United Kingdom, Mr. Littlewood said.
Customers use digital signatures generated by smart cards to complete the registration forms and submit them via Internet. Compaq Computer Corp. also announced its ability to connect banks to the Identrus infrastructure.
"We help banks figure out what to put on-line and create the messaging interface to the trust infrastructure," said Andrew Dixon, segment manager at Compaq.