Battle lines are being drawn in the emerging bill presentment market, as the promoters of various approaches round up big-name supporters.
This week Just In Time Solutions announced that Intuit Inc. and AT&T Corp. are championing its method of electronic bill presentment.
MSFDC, the joint venture of Microsoft and First Data Corp., said nine new billers have joined its service.
And CyberCash Inc. unveiled an alliance with America Online, to promote yet another model of electronic bill presentment.
All are pursuing profits in a market estimated by Piper Jaffray Research to be between $560 million and $940 million.
Under the approach advocated by Intuit, AT&T, and Just In Time Solutions, billing data does not reside at a third-party consolidator's Web site.
Instead, customers receive notifications of bills due and basic bill summaries by visiting either their bank's Web site or Intuit's Quicken.com. For more detailed billing information, they link directly to billers' Web sites.
The aim is to let billers maintain a high level of contact with their customers.
"This model looks very attractive, as it promises the convenience provided by the consolidator model but also gives control of the relationship to the biller," said Scott Smith, principal analyst at Current Analysis Inc. of Sterling, Va.
An alternative bill presentment method used by Checkfree Corp. and MSFDC is known as the consolidator model. It requires billers to store detailed billing information at the bill presenter's site. Among the nine new biller participants that MSFDC announced this week are Mobil Corp., Southern California Edison Co., and Xerox Corp.
"Adding new billers and financial institutions is key to our growth strategy in the months ahead," said Darren Remington, co-president of MSFDC.
Advocates of yet another model, the biller-direct, say customers should go directly to billers' Web sites to obtain and pay bills. The approach is similar to that taken by wholesale banks in their relationships with billers, "which is their unique and forgotten advantage," said Richard K. Crone, vice president and general manager of Cybercash.
Cybercash is helping to promote this approach through an alliance with America Online Inc. The six-month program will allow local utilities in Washington to present bills on AOL's Digital Cities service, an on-line local resource reaching more than three million people in 28 cities every month.
"It is designed to give billers another way to reach consumers that is different from a consolidator," said Nancy Goldberg, general manager of interactive billing and payment services for Cybercash.
"We have a large audience focused on the local community-dining, movies, autos, real estate-a virtual neighborhood," said Paul R. DeBenedictis, president of the on-line service's Digital City subsidiary.
AOL expects the bill presentment service to attract more traffic to its site. Cybercash, by making payments easier with its suite of electronic payment tools, expects to conduct more on-line transactions. "It is a good marriage," Mr. DeBenedictis said.
The principal effect of the varying approaches to electronic bill presentment may be to force a strategy of betting on all systems.
"Home banking showed us that you need multiple delivery channels," Mr. Smith of Current Analysis said. "There is not just one way to reach consumers, and there is not just one model that is convenient for all billers.
"The industry will have to suffer the immediate consequence of slower development, in return for the benefit of having as many delivery channels as the billers need," he said.
Officials at Just In Time Solutions said their focus on open standards will ease the industry's growing pains. The company is promoting a common way for "publishing" electronic bills to a variety of consolidators.
"If I had to think about which supermarket to go to for Peter Pan peanut butter, than the supermarket industry has failed," said Mike Lanza, chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based company.
"If I have to think about which biller has a relationship with which consolidator one or two years from now, then this industry will have failed," he said.
Some see no need for an open approach. "You don't need any open Internet billing standards to leverage the relationships that billers already have in place with banks," Mr. Crone said.
Jessica Ostrow, vice president of marketing with MSFDC, said Just In Time has not contacted her firm to determine how its open billing system would work with MSFDC, which will be operational this fall.
"We know that the competition has been talking about bill detail needing to be stored at the billers' Web site," Ms. Ostrow said. "We view that as a red herring. When we talk with billers, they want an outsourced processor to handle the entire bill detail."
But many billers express reluctance to warehouse their bills at third- party locations.
"We want to make our bills available" through any model, said Kevin Duffy, AT&T's manager of consumer billing strategy. "But our position is that billing detail will be stored on AT&T servers."
With more than 90 million of its customers receiving monthly bills, AT&T's opinion carries weight. Its feeling on this matter appears widespread among many larger billers.
"Service providers are not going to give up control of billing," said Boyd C. Peterson, director of consumer communications at Yankee Group, Boston.
"Utilities will continue to send paper bills rather than give up the process of controlling the relationship with the customer," he said. "A bill is the only thing that these service providers have to communicate with their customers-otherwise, they are just a dumb pipe."
Some organizations see an opportunity in the feverish competition currently confronting the industry.
"Billers are getting pitched by MSFDC, Checkfree, and Just in Time, and you are hearing them bashing one another," said Jorge Martin, product manager of Internet billing with International Billing Service.
"We come in after they have confused things and given decision paralysis to the biller," Mr. Martin said. His company embraces all approaches to billing, including paper invoices. "We want to give bill producers and consumers the ultimate choice about where to receive their bills," he said.