Microsoft Corp., which in recent years had managed to temper its reputation as a threat to banks, on Tuesday announced the formal debut of an account aggregation service through its MSN MoneyCentral Web site.
Microsoft joins a growing number of nonbanks developing Web sites that would usurp bank functions by giving people the ability to consolidate all their financial-account information in one place. These aggregators use a variety of methods, including the scraping of information directly from other Web sites, to collect information on behalf of consumers.
MoneyCentral's My Accounts service comes about a month after Quicken's introduction of a similar service called My Finances. Both sites draw consumers at a greater rate than bank Web sites. MoneyCentral had 4.3 million individual visitors in March, and Quicken 3.6 million, according to Media Metrix; the nation's largest banks each count about 2 million people as regular Internet banking customers.
MoneyCentral becomes the first Web site to go live with the OneSource Network account aggregation software from Corillian Corp. of Beaverton, Ore. It will use OneSource to collect information on bank and credit card accounts.
Six brokerage houses - Fidelity Investments, Charles Schwab & Co., DLJ Direct Inc., Datek Online, TD Waterhouse Group, and E-Trade Group Inc. - already are supplying account information to MoneyCentral through the Open Financial Exchange standard, which enables the sharing of information between willing institutions.
Corillian uses OFX when it can to collect account information from financial institutions. Its goal is to have a number of institutions participating in OneSource, each making their customer data available to all other members of the network.
When dealing with institutions that do not have OFX or do not want to participate in OneSource, Corillian uses screen-scraping techniques to get customers' data. Corillian has attempted to put a friendly veneer on the controversial practice by promising to notify financial institutions before aggregating data. Corillian also gives financial institutions whose Web sites have been scraped information about the number of their customers who are requesting the data.
First Tech Credit Union of Beaverton, Ore., is testing Corillian's OneSource software, and Hibernia Corp. of New Orleans, plans to do so. Matthew Cone, Corillian's chief marketing officer, said the company "is in talks with a number of banks" that use its online banking software.
Chris Jolley, product manager for MSN MoneyCentral, said the site plans to differentiate its service from the competition by integrating the collected data into financial planning and other tools. For example, consumers can input their savings account and investment information into an asset allocation model.
"Instead of just throwing up links and aggregating the data, we want to take it a step beyond that," Mr. Jolley said.
My Accounts also complements MoneyCentral's bill presentment service, which it currently offers through an alliance with Transpoint LLC. "It's useful to see how much money you have in your account on the same page as your bills," Mr. Jolley said.
Microsoft plans to gauge customer feedback before deciding upon other ways to integrate the account aggregation feature into the site.
Octavio Marenzi, managing director of Celent Communications, a Cambridge, Mass.-based research company, said that MSN's choice of Corillian shows that Microsoft is attempting to be "as bank friendly as possible," since Corillian makes an effort to work with banks.
"Clearly there is some capacity for friction in the sense that Microsoft is now pushing itself more in the forefront and pushing some of the banks in the background," Mr. Marenzi said. "But Corillian's approach is more bank-friendly than many of its competitors."
Taking a "bank-friendly" stance may make the most sense for non-bank financial portals, said Brook Newcomb, an analyst with Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass. He said he believes banks ultimately will become the favored sites for account aggregation.
"Certainly offerings like MSN and Quicken will get a good early start on this," Mr. Newcomb said. "But the natural reaction among consumers is that they still think of where their transaction account is as the place they want to get financial information."