As banks and service companies race to gain an early lead in the nascent home banking market, recent events suggest that the eventual leaders may corner the market through lawsuits and patents rather than sales and alliances.
The latest and most notable evidence of this development comes from Checkfree Corp., the nation's leading bill payment processor. Last week, Checkfree obtained a patent for its bill payment service and promptly slapped a smaller, up-and-coming rival, National Payment Clearinghouse Inc., with an infringement suit.
While still digesting this surprising turn of events, bankers and industry observers are questioning Checkfree's motivations in obtaining a patent and its abrupt legal action on it.
"I have a concern that this is more destructive than constructive for the industry as a whole," said Mark Burns, the vice president for on-line services in Chase Manhattan Corp.'s emerging delivery systems group. "Checkfree clearly did not invent this process."
Chase itself is indirectly involved in this legal brouhaha via its partnership with Microsoft Corp. in the software company's home banking program, known as Money. Microsoft uses National Payment as its clearing house for PC-based transactions. And the software giant may soon become National Payment's parent company if Microsoft's pending acquisition of Intuit Inc. - maker of Quicken personal finance software and owner of National Payment - is cleared.
These interconnected relationships may have played a role in Checkfree's haste to act on its newfound legal right to the bill payment process and why it singled out National Payment, sources said.
Before Intuit acquired National Payment in July 1994, Checkfree was its main payment processor. According to William Lane, the chief financial officer for Intuit, Quicken transactions represent the "lion's share" of Checkfree's business - about three-quarters of its overall processing volume, he estimated. Checkfree officials declined to furnish that information.
Although Checkfree and Intuit still work together, the software company's ownership of National Payment makes its relationship with Checkfree unnecessary. Intuit will not be renewing its multiyear contract with Checkfree when it expires this summer.
One onlooker said Checkfree was acting like a "jilted lover" in its legal attack on National Payment, claiming that Checkfree perceived its much smaller, but well-placed competitor as a threat due to its advantageous association with Microsoft and Intuit.
But Checkfree officials dismissed these assertions, saying it had applied for its patent three and a half years ago - long before any of these recent events had occurred. Checkfree immediately sued National Payment because it makes the most egregious violation of the patent, according to Mark D. Phelan, the executive vice president for sales and marketing at Checkfree, and Checkfree wanted to test its validity.
Although Mr. Phelan would not comment on whether any other companies could be seen as infringing upon the patent, he said Checkfree's actions would not affect banks.
Carl Brady, a senior vice president at SmartPay, another bill payment company, had not even heard about the lawsuit, which suggests the unlikelihood that Checkfree would come down as hard on SmartPay as it had on National Payment.
He alleged that one of Checkfree's motivating factors could be "the deep pockets of Microsoft," if and when the tiny clearing house is swallowed up. But in taking on the demonized software company, Mr. Brady said "Checkfree could be perceived as a white knight by at least part of the business community."