International Business Machines Corp.'s efforts to promote its technical standard for home banking may further complicate the task of arriving at a single industry standard.
IBM officials last week announced an array of electronic commerce software products to be built around its Gold standard, which is supported by the Integrion consortium of 16 major banks and IBM.
By throwing more weight behind Gold, analysts said, IBM may be making it harder for Integrion Financial Network to merge its standard with OFX, the Open Financial Exchange specification of Checkfree Corp., Intuit Inc., and Microsoft Corp.
The Gold announcement, made at an IBM financial services conference in Anaheim, Calif., also puts IBM's Lotus Development Corp. on a collision course with Microsoft for the sales of server-based software.
Both companies promote their products by stressing their compatibility with home banking systems.
"Financial institutions want a single standard, and there is still a lot of confusion and concern," said David Weisman, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass.
"The longer there is a standoff, the more it slows them down," Mr. Weisman said. "But most aren't waiting on the sidelines. They are moving to OFX."
OFX and Gold essentially are sets of computer instructions for exchanging packets of electronic data between banks and customers.
Though about 85% of the competing standards' commands are similar, advocates on the two sides magnify the differences.
"There is nobody using OFX today," said William M. Fenimore, managing director of the Integrion Financial Network.
"Their specification (Gold) just got finished," countered Robert L. Crumpler, Intuit's senior manager of business development for OFX.
Nonetheless, the two camps are working toward what they call "semantic convergence," which would allow a computer system to translate OFX to Gold and vice versa.
A convergence would let Integrion institutions-major banks that claim to have a combined 60% of North American bank accounts-offer consumer banking services through Intuit's Quicken software, for example.
"Integrion Gold's timing and OFX's introduction didn't put us in a position to combine the two," Mr. Crumpler said. "However, we are working to define our message sets and looking at similar functions for statement downloading and funds transfer so that we can find a common way of sending that data."
But translation mechanisms may not be available this fall, as originally planned.
And if Intuit and Microsoft release OFX-compliant versions of their personal financial software in the next few months, banks could be forced to line up on one side or another.
"My sense is that the battle lines are hardening," said Bill Burnham, an analyst at Piper Jaffray in Minneapolis. "You will see a pretty drawn-out standards battle that reaches a climactic stage this year."
The impasse would spring in part from the reluctance of bank-led organizations to countenance a standard developed or controlled by a software company like Microsoft or Intuit.
"I don't see how Microsoft and Intuit can ram OFX down the throats of banks," Mr. Burnham said.
"But banks have to realize that the software companies are delivering value to the consumers," he said. "Banks are going to have to offer consolidation across financial institutions because that is what consumers want."
In unveiling the "Goldrush" tool kit for home banking applications, IBM opened up a Gold-based path for banks that are not currently part of Integrion.
"You can liken it to Microsoft's Marble," said Integrion communication manager Emily Mendel, referring to software that helps banks construct sites on the Internet.
"Microsoft did this to make OFX a stronger standard," she said. "We wouldn't ask Microsoft to stop in their tracks. We can't stop our business and wait for them."
Some software vendors already are bowing to the reality that the various "standards" will be controlled by the respective companies supporting them.
"OFX is really a Microsoft standard," said Eric Jacobsen of Home Financial Network, a Westport, Conn., software developer. "But I do not agree that there is a problem having two competing standards. The problem comes when there are six or seven standards."