Yes, we're entering a scary new era. But no, don't panic. Technology is pulling the banking system into a new mode and it's a brave seer, indeed, who can assure you that he or she knows the future. Is there a future for banking companies as we know them? Will banking become merely a function within broader corporations? Will organizations such as Yahoo Inc. or Intuit Inc. be the "banks" of tomorrow?

These are possibilities, but from the evidence available, the odds are against them. More likely, today's banking organizations will be tomorrow's banking organizations.

What we have seen so far is that despite all the hoopla, no purely Internet bank has done well, even after having poured hundreds of millions of dollars into marketing--even when created by existing large banks. Examples, of course, include Bank One's WingspanBank.com and Citigroup's Citi f/i, which has been closed.

In contrast, some banks' own online banking systems have been doing very well, most notably Wells Fargo's and Bank of America's. Wells reportedly already has more than 2 million customers, and so does Bank of America, after having made no special effort.

Even Citigroup's online banking venture, which has been aimed at its own customers, has signed up some 700,000 clients. Its success probably has been muted because of its relatively small branch system in the United States.

At this point, no one knows exactly why people going online with banking are sticking with their own banks. But we'll venture a guess: Above all, it's a pain, and often expensive, to change banks. It takes an effort to open one account and close another. If a consumer keeps a minimum deposit in his or her bank, and it's held in a certificate of deposit, the client either must wait for the CD to mature or pay a penalty. And then there's the issue of checks. Consumers usually must pay for their checks and the idea of throwing away unused checks can inhibit a move--even if the new bank offers free ones.

Also, possibly, deep within us we feel, or know intuitively, that there's something different about a real bank. We know that a credit card company or an Internet portal just isn't the same thing. We know that a bank is more, or should be more, than a snazzy marketing company.

If there's truth to this theory, it's very good news for banks. That still doesn't mean bankers can sit back comfortably. Each will have to make Internet banking available to its customers.

Probably only the biggest banks will be able to afford to build their own Internet banking systems, but there are enough vendors to provide a wide range of options and at a wide range of costs. The challenge will be to decide the most efficient way to meet the market demands.

But banks are accustomed to doing that--they have had a similar experience dealing with their back-office needs. So, despite all the hype, there's no need to panic.

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