New ATMs Designed to Break Down Less

Bells and whistles on ATMs are nice, consumers say, but what we'd really like is for the cash machines to work. So, the Big Two makers of teller machines are complying with these wishes.

In recent weeks, InterBold and NCR Corp. rolled out a line of machines that break down less. To boot, the new machines anticipate and report on potential problems, and remain on line during basic maintenance.

But bankers are smiling, too, because the ATMs are more flexible. The new machines rely on so-called open architecture, which provides standard electrical and mechanical connections to present and future computer networks and peripherals.

"We're giving banks the ground floor to build a more advanced, feature-oriented system in the future," said David A. Sacco, marketing director of self-service systems at NCR in Dayton, Ohio.

Expansion Simplified

"The adaptability of the new machines will allow future applications to be tacked on virtually hitch-free," said David Bucci, director of marketing for InterBold, a joint venture between Diebold Inc. and International Business Machines Corp. in North Canton, Ohio.

InterBold's new "i" models, introduced in early October, have the flexibility to be installed both on Diebold's earlier modular delivery system, and as new machines on which new features can easily be added.

Rival NCR, which is competing neck and neck for domestic ATM business with InterBold, rolled out its "56xx" series last month.

While the 56xx is souped up with a host of upgrades - including a new dispenser and printer, touch-screen monitor, 386 Intel chip and OS2 operating system, NCR says the most significant feature is its open system architecture.

"We introduced the 56xx series because banks were reluctant to replace a new ATM with a machine limited in its architecture," Mr. Sacco said.

Sensitivity at InterBold

Faced with the prospect of purchasing basic machines that are endlessly adaptable, banks need to be assured that the basic machine is also long-lasting and reliable. InterBold is particularly sensitive to this need since its modular delivery system ATM was maligned for its erratic performance.

The company has addressed this concern by offering a money-back performance guarantee. InterBold guarantees 99% reliability on its new "i" series over any three-month period, or it will refund the price of its customer's service contract.

"We're also restructuring our maintenance visits based on the volume each machine generates rather than regularly scheduled visits. InterBold's Mr. Bucci said.

NCR stopped short of offering the money-back guarantee. Pointing to a six-month backlog of orders, Mr. Sacco said: "It seems our past performance is kind of a guarantee in and of itself."

U.S. Guidelines Met

Both NCR's and InterBold's models also meet the federal guidelines for height and reach necessary to accommodate people in wheelchairs. NCR has also developed an optional voice feature to assist customers who have vision impairments.

These features are important partly because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires U.S. financial institutions to make some of their facilities accessible to those with disabilities.

Prices for NCR's 5600 series start at $18,000 for a basic cash-dispensing model and range up to $38,000 for more sophisticated systems. Interbold's "i" series runs between $10,000 and $40,000.

Despite a sluggish economy, NCR and InterBold remain enthusiastic about potential sales.

"We sold 18,000 ATMs worldwide in 1990 and should sell about 20,000 this year," said NCR's Mr. Sacco. "Our plans show a sharp growth in those numbers."

No Free Spenders

But some bankers, reluctant to make large investments in new systems, are clutching their purse strings tightly.

Cathy Corby, senior technology planner for Barnett Technologies Inc., a unit of Barnett Banks Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla., said she is hesitant to buy more than a handful of new machines because of the investment involved.

"We'll take an experimental approach to this new generation of ATMs, and maybe we will buy one to four ATMs and test them out," she said.

"My overriding concern is that consumers aren't enamored with technology just for technology's sake. Getting value is what consumers care about. I'm just not sure how much added value is here."

Analysts Supportive

Analysts, meanwhile, gave the new machines generally favorable grades.

Speed could prove to be a key advantage when it comes to serving the user, says Anne M. Moore, president of Synergistics Research Corp. of Atlanta.

"A major hurdle with all the new ATM applications is that banks are running the risk of having the transaction time take way too long," Ms. Moore said. "You might be at an ATM to withdraw cash and someone in front of you on line is booking a flight to Los Angeles. You don't want people clogging up the line."

But Ms. Moore realizes that banks may have to plunge ahead, offering new features despite the risks.

George L. Albright, president of Speer & Associates in Atlanta, said the reliability "is exactly what we were looking for."

"The |i' series is supposed to do 10,000 transactions before it needs servicing," Mr. Albright said. "Existing machines need to be serviced after as few as 1,000 transactions."

Because of the profit potential, Spenser Nilson, president of The Nilson Report, based in Santa Monica, Calif., believes there is no risk in banks' "upgrading their ATMs because it's a step in the right direction." Adam S. Levy is a banking and finance reporter for The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Fla.

PHOTO : GEORGE L. ALBRIGHT of Speer & Associates likes the reduced servicing needs of new ATMs.

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