Southeast Asia may well be the promised land for ATM salesmen.

Image-conscious banks want the latest and best technology, and wouldn't think of using units for more than a few years. Add the fact that most markets are only beginning to open up to the potential of self-service technology and the future looks bright.

Edgar Peterson, who oversees the Asia market for Diebold, which offers InterBold terminals in partnership with IBM, unapologetically offers this insight about the market: "The banks certainly pay to stay on the cutting edge rather than get their money's worth from the machine," he said.

Indeed, it is a mix of testosterone-driven competition and a savvy customer base that wants user-friendly technology at no cost that has propelled the Asian market in recent years.

"I think self-service for the customer is the trend," said Saroch Indragajita, vice president in charge of electronic banking at Bangkok- based Siam Commercial Bank. "It is what our customers want."

Typical of other banks in the region, Siam Commercial does not charge customers fees for transactions - ever. In some countries, consumer- friendly laws prohibit such fees much to the chagrin of bankers. Still, some banks charge an annual fee for the ATM card, which carries a status for which consumers are willing to pay.

While most transactions at ATMs are largely cash withdrawals, the machines in Asia are increasingly more sophisticated than ones marketed in the U.S. In Singapore, a customer can pay many bills, buy initial public offerings, pay their bank credit card bill, bid for a permit to buy a car, and get cash in minutes.

But versatility has a downside. Some bankers say too many options frustrate customers. "We have seen some customers that complain about being forced to go through too many screens of information to get to a noncash transaction," said a banker in Taiwan. "That means there is obviously a demand for specialized machines for specific functions."

That has already begun to happen. AT&T Global Information Solutions recently rolled out a custom-designed Open Banking Terminal for Singapore- based United Overseas Bank Group. The noncash unit allows customers to buy a cashier's check and pay credit card bills, but is chiefly designed to promote investments to Asian baby boomers.

"Our customer base is gradually shifting from borrowers to investors," said Leong-Sim Puay Suang, senior vice president and head of consumer services division. "This machine will help in our marketing as we move toward a high-tech and a high-touch environment."

The reasons are simple. The units are multimedia with an almost cartoon interface that is available 24 hours a day. It allows customers to constantly compare the returns on investments and the fluctuations in currencies before making an investment decision. If a customer decides to buy an investment, they can insert their card and immediately debit their account for the cost of share purchases.

But banks are also looking for other variations of specialized self- service. One of the most pressing needs is for a cost-effective way to handle cash deposits. In Taiwan, that can be a simple locked box with a metal cover that sits in a guarded bank lobby and is used only during bank hours. In Hongkong, it may be a type of ATM machine designed to take small amounts of cash.

But one of the most pressing issues is how to get more customers to make check-based deposits - such as payroll - into an ATM where the cost is a fraction of what it costs for service from a human teller. Increasingly popular is an InterBold machine known as the Integrated Deposit Module.

The machines allow a person to directly deposit a check without a special envelope. The front and back of the check are instantly imaged onto a screen and is available for deposit or cash back to the customer.

Nearly 200 of the machines are in use in the United States. The first was introduced in 1992 at the Pittsburgh International Airport where airline employees regularly use it for deposits.

"Customers are reluctant to make deposits because they don't know what happened to a check after it goes into a slot. This takes care of that," said Diebold's Mr. Peterson. "By and large, the customer is still dubious about other types of transactions other than dispensing currency."

There is still much business to be had in Asia just selling cash dispensing machines. Observers believe a market like Thailand with about 2,100 units nationwide could see a ten-fold increase in the next five years.

Few can begin to estimate the potential demand in countries from Vietnam to China, which are only now opening to competition. With more than 1.2 billion people, China has between 2,300 and 5,500 ATM machines nationwide.

Anthony Lau, assistant vice president for worldwide industry marketing, draws a visual picture of enough ATMs to literally line the Great Wall. "There is talk of 100,000 ATMs as the government pushes to be a cashless society and bypass checks entirely," he said.

His rival, Mr. Peterson, agrees it will be a tremendous opportunity, but says more practical issues - like telecommunications - must be resolved first. Still, he is wowed by the potential.

"I was in China last week and a banker told me that 60% of the people have yet to make their first phone call," he said, drawing an analogy to user-friendly technology. "If that's the case, then what does it mean for us in the ATM business?"

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