Intuit Inc. has agreed with America Online Inc. to expand the Quicken.com financial site into some of cyberspace's choicest real estate.
The $30 million deal, announced a week ago, appears to solidify a long- term relationship between the owners of two of the biggest brand names in the interactive world. Intuit's Quicken is the most popular personal financial management software, and AOL is the dominant on-line service network, each claiming more than 11 million users or members.
The alliance means that Intuit will become the primary source of financial information on the AOL.com Web site and an "anchor tenant" on two of America Online's subscriber channels, Personal Finance and WorkPlace.
For the right to put itself in the midst of AOL users' inquiries about taxes, mortgages, insurance, and financial management, Intuit has guaranteed payments totaling $30 million over three years, including $16 million up-front. America Online could get even more of the revenues from the Intuit offerings if certain thresholds are exceeded.
The exclusive arrangement-the first in which America Online is relying on one provider in a major content or programming category-will provide a "critical mass of customers" to make Quicken.com a prime financial gathering place on the Web, said William H. Harris, executive vice president of Mountain View, Calif.-based Intuit.
As interactive-service "aggregators" attracting large numbers of potential financial consumers, these allies are forcing would-be providers of on-line services to take notice.
A financial institution might view Intuit, at least, as a potential competitor, though Mr. Harris sees it differently.
"Although we are not a financial services company, we are providing a channel through which financial services companies can contact customers," he said.
The AOL alliance is the third struck by Intuit in recent months as it seeks to attract Internet traffic. In October, the company introduced its own Web site as the business and investing channel on the Excite search engine, the result of a $40 million equity investment in Excite Inc. last June.
In December, Intuit announced a five-year exclusive agreement with CNN Financial Network to provide a cobranded Web site with financial information and software tools for surveying bank rates, insurance policies, and retirement plans.
Quicken.com was tied with Microsoft Corp.'s Investor as the most popular personal financial Web site in the most recent monthly survey by Media Metrix, a division of New York-based PC Meter. Each site reached 1.5%, or 570,000, of the 38 million home Web users.
The additional distribution via America Online will almost certainly put Quicken.com over the top. The on-line network's Personal Finance section is already one of the most popular places in cyberspace, with 4.9 million users, according to Media Metrix. The channel offers 60 million stock quotes a day and maintains data on more than six million investment portfolios.
Those kinds of numbers may prove hard for bankers to ignore.
"The Internet has made Intuit potentially a very valuable part of a bank's acquisition strategy," said Gary R. Craft of BancAmerica Robertson Stephens in San Francisco.
"Banks will have to pay for customer flows-something they do in more indirect ways today," said Mr. Craft. "Instead of hiring a branch manager or taking out advertisements in a local newspaper, they will do the same thing through the deep channels of the Internet."
Bankers, who have been wary of outsiders like Intuit and Microsoft encroaching on their turf, will be asking whether they can make Intuit's successes work to their advantage.
"It is a good strategy for Intuit to lock up these portals on the Internet," said David Weisman of Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "They are satisfying the needs of financial institutions for multilayered distribution, but that still doesn't mean (bankers) are not going to feel disintermediated."
Intuit, which suffered on the stock market last year when investors doubted its product distribution strategy was suited to the Internet, appears to be back on a roll. Its stock price is around $50, up from $32 when it announced its Internet strategy last October.
"The conventional wisdom was that Intuit would die as Microsoft integrated its Money personal financial software" into the Windows operating system and its Internet Explorer Web browser, said Peter Krasilovsky, senior analyst at Arlen Communications Inc. of Bethesda, Md.
"Intuit is showing that they can integrate just as well as Microsoft," he said. "They have been making a lot of great decisions lately."
In talking to bankers, Intuit officials are trying to get past some earlier hostilities by emphasizing their ability to create simple and compelling graphical interfaces that can be linked to financial institutions. (See article below.)
Mr. Harris described the AOL partnership as a "big win for end-users" that also provides "access to millions of on-line customers for our financial institution partners."
"In the connected world, we have a much greater opportunity to let financial institutions use our software in various ways like cobranding, private labeling, and distributing on their own Web sites," Mr. Harris said.
Intuit certainly impressed America Online in that regard.
While AOL still offers popular services like the Motley Fool investment center, the company predicted that Intuit's programs and information would supersede what AOL had been developing in areas like real estate financing.
"Intuit was so far ahead (in areas where) we had a pretty modest offering," said Robert C. Shenk, director of AOL's Personal Finance channel.
The deal was not the first between these companies in personal financial services. In August 1996, America Online began a home banking offering, BankNow, that was a modified version of Quicken.
The companies strengthened that element of the relationship last week. Intuit said it would provide America Online's software with future releases of Quicken, and America Online said it would bundle BankNow on the promotional computer disks it mails to prospective customers.