Thanks to the dominant market share of its Quicken personal finance software, Intuit Inc. has long been a major influence in home banking-a role it may have recently enhanced with its participation in the development of the Open Financial Exchange, or OFX, technical standard.
At the same time, Intuit has had to deal with the uncertainties facing any high-tech player.
Competition in its core market is heating up, particularly from its archrival-and OFX partner-Microsoft Corp. Questions have been raised about the compatibility of OFX with the Gold standard of Integrion Financial Network, a consortium that argues banks should be in control of the technology. And some bankers remain suspicious about Intuit's and Microsoft's alleged desires to dominate the computer desktop, despite attempts at reassurance by both companies.
"If we are not providing value in excess of our cost, banks and consumers won't want to work with us," Intuit chairman Scott Cook said in an interview last week.
Other excerpts from the conversation with Mr. Cook in his Mountain View, Calif., office follow.
How have the decisions to sell Intuit Services Corp. and the move to create OFX with Microsoft and Checkfree Corp. affected Intuit's relations with banks?
COOK: We have tremendously better relations with banks than we did a year ago. I think it is mostly in response to the Internet. The Internet means choice. Companies that try to deny their customers choice are going to have real trouble in the world of the Internet.
The old model with Intuit Services did not give our bank customers choice. They were required to use one private network to connect to customers, and they were required to use one specific bill payment company. We wanted to make sure we were leading and not lagging, so we rapidly made the decision that there is a better way to do it in the world of the Internet, and that is to make sure that our bank customers have choice.
Some say that Microsoft stands to benefit more than Intuit from an open financial standard. How do you feel about this?
COOK: When you try to do something that works on an industrywide level, it needs to produce benefits for each of the parties, or they won't play.
It works for the banks-they aren't going to have to produce three or four different kinds of technology to serve three or four different parts of their audience. It will help Microsoft because they will be able to sell more server software, and the servers won't have to do four language conversions. It will help customers because customers will be able to get their bank and brokerage data from the bank and broker of their choice, without having to worry that everyone is trying to speak the right language.
And for Intuit?
COOK: We can spend our time building things that help customers.
How will the Gold standard work with OFX?
COOK: Standard means a popularly used specification. It would be like calling a new record from an unknown group a hit. It only becomes a hit when it is popular.
We are committed to compatibility with the other standards in 1997, and in 1998 we want convergence. The banks want one language, one specification. We got that message. The rest of the folks at OFX are totally committed to that.
Is OFX going to converge into Gold or Gold into OFX?
COOK: In convergence, it is not one going into the other, it is taking the best ideas. That is how Checkfree, Microsoft, and Intuit, plus a bunch of other banks we were working with, converged to OFX.
What do you say about Intuit's lagging stock price?
COOK: It's worth noting that the price is two-and-a-half times higher than when we went public less than four years ago. The value of the business is all in what it will do in the future. The base of customers is a tremendous advantage, but it is only one piece of what we do.
For some of the new and Internet-based things we are doing, it is really helpful to have this base of customers. Many of the Internet start-ups are flailing because they can't get a critical mass of either customers or institutions to work with, and they get locked in to this chicken-and-egg problem.