Electronic malls and payment processing are standard uses of Open Market Inc.'s technology. Banc One Corp. is one customer trying to break through even those virtual walls.
The Columbus, Ohio, banking company plays the intermediary role for Rowe Communications, developer of an on-line system that enables libraries to buy books and other documents.
"Our hypothesis was that business-to-business payments and transactions will probably take off more quickly than consumer purchases and payments, and this was our first foray into that," said Steve Dieringer, group product manager.
Banc One executives met Open Market's founders through CommerceNet, the California-based electronic commerce consortium, about the same time they received a proposal from Dick Rowe, the Boston entrepreneur who came up with the electronic ordering idea.
"I talked to the folks at Open Market, we won the (contract), and came up with a solution," Mr. Dieringer said. "We're now looking around the world quite a bit at other projects, but we keep going back to Open Market."
Once the library-fulfillment business was on its way, Banc One began working with Open Market on a system that, since last July, has enabled the bank's corporate customers to track exception items - and view actual check images - on the Internet.
"At first we called it Trojan Horse, because it was the first time we allowed external customers to access an internal system through the Internet," said Rex Plouck, product manager with Banc One's electronic commerce group. "It's been a tremendous success. We've turned it into a revenue generator."
Bank officials see it as a prelude. "One of the advantages of the Internet is it gives you the opportunity to tie separate products and services together," Mr. Plouck said. "The customer doesn't really know that it's four or five different silos."
Another financial institution using Open Market's products for retail customers is the Vanguard Group of Investment Cos. Last month it began to offer on-line account access to its 3 million investors.
Two banks, First Union Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., and Toronto Dominion Bank, are using Open Market's products to operate virtual malls.
The Canadian bank hopes to capture the business of Internet merchants.
"When merchants come to us and say, 'We'd like to provide authorized transactions over the Internet,' we say, 'no problem, here's a couple of ways to do it,' " said Steve Gesner, associate vice president of alternative delivery channels at Toronto Dominion.
"It's similar to a merchant coming to us and saying, 'We want to get into the credit card or point of sale business.' We say, 'Here is what you need to get started.' "
Toronto Dominion's mall has attracted a smattering of merchants and even a government agency: Canada's national statistics bureau allows credit card purchases through its Web site of "any sort of weird, esoteric, slice and dice of information," Mr. Gesner said.
First Union was the first bank to sign with Open Market. Thomas J. Kitrick, a vice president who was in charge of developing Internet activities in 1994 and 1995, said he was impressed by Open Market's business-oriented approach.
"Open Market fit our model at the time relative to how much we could spend and how much we would allow someone to disintermediate between us and our customers," Mr. Kitrick said. "There was a model going around at the time that vendors would take a piece of the transaction revenue. That was something I was and still am opposed to."
Open Market charged for software and development costs but did not collect transaction "tolls."
"I still am impressed with them," Mr. Kitrick said. "They are not hyping the industry too much."
Parker Foley, who has taken the reins from Mr. Kitrick as vice president of electronic commerce, said Open Market's approach also conformed to the bank's desire not to become an Internet service provider, Web designer, or server host.
"The merchants that come to us have their own Open Market software and hook up to us for the payments part," Mr. Foley said. "That fit our model better than Netscape's early stuff, which required you to host as well." Open Market "kept that modular approach, which has worked for us."
Mr. Foley acknowledged that First Union's role in the virtual mall is "not necessarily one that has to be a bank." First Union is also exploring other nontraditional roles in such areas as on-line legal documentation and digital certification.
"A lot of the electronic commerce that banks could get into is not just retail, it's business to business," Mr. Foley said. "People are looking at things like letters of credit across the Internet with digital certificates. We like very much that Open Market is thinking about those issues too."