For years, a cloud seemed to lurk over Meca Software.

The company was the first to offer personal financial management software, in the 1980s. But Managing Your Money evoked a collective yawn.

Meca then took another path, developing a health-and-fitness software package, called Jim Fixx: The Running Program. But the noted marathoner died of a heart attack two weeks before the scheduled release, so the package was shelved.

In 1993, 10 years old and still losing money, Meca agreed to a takeover offer from H&R Block. But Block was mostly interested in Meca's tax software, not its personal financial system. Managing Your Money got short shrift, and Meca's chief executive officer, Daniel M. Schley, left to found a rival firm.

"We've been through a lot," said Paul D. Harrison, now Meca's president and chief executive officer. "We started the industry," he said, but because of years of bad marketing decisions at Meca, "Intuit ended up with the market share."

Though Managing Your Money is a distant third in financial software market share behind Intuit Inc.'s Quicken and Microsoft Corp.'s Money, today's Meca is full of pluck. Its spirits and coffers have been boosted by bank investments.

BankAmerica Corp. and NationsBank Corp. bought the company from Block in mid-1995, and three other banks have since joined the ownership group.

Meca has announced the imminent release of two easier-to-use products - Managing Your Money Lite and Ultralite - which it hopes to parlay into profits.

"We have zero interest in selling products that do not have banks involved, and that's where our strategy is different," Mr. Harrison said. "We think we've hit on the correct strategy, and we're building a marketing environment."

The stakes have gotten higher since Meca's early days. Competition to provide banks and consumers with home banking and personal financial management software is more intense than ever. Given the fact that personal computers are in 30% to 40% of American households, bankers increasingly say their long-delayed goal of cutting costs by allowing customers to bank at home is within grasp.

The big question of the 1980s - whether home banking would ever gain popularity - has given way to new stumpers: Will there be roles for a variety of companies in the home banking and personal financial management markets? Or will these software-based financial management tools end up being supplanted by the Internet?

Meca and its rivals are betting that home banking will grow to mass- market proportions, that the Internet will remain only one of many options, and that the market will support numerous service suppliers.

Mr. Harrison puts the number of people who bank at home at less than half a million, and says the market is laced with uncertainty. "We're dealing with consumer behavior and a product that barely exists," he said.

Personal financial management software is much further evolved. Some experts argue the market for these sophisticated products - allowing people to chart, map, and plan their finances and investments in a quasi- professional way that may or may not include communication with their banks - is nearing saturation.

Quicken dominates the market, with a share of perhaps 80%. Microsoft Corp. has most of the rest with its Money package.

Bankers have long feared that Intuit and Microsoft are trying to steal their customers. The two software companies' 1994 agreement to merge, though it was later aborted, galvanized NationsBank and BankAmerica to acquire Meca.

Meca had always presented itself as "bank-friendly" to capitalize on anti-Microsoft and anti-Intuit sentiments, but under banking ownership it has honed that positioning to a fare-thee-well. Meca emphasizes that its product carries banks' brand names, and only those names.

"No matter what they tell you, the competitors are interested in being in the financial services industry," Mr. Harrison warned. "This is an operating system for banking services, and they intend to begin selling customers financial services and mutual funds.

"Intuit is going to become a Charles Schwab," Mr. Harrison predicted. "They will have an Intuit credit card, an Intuit mutual fund service, and they will sell Intuit insurance."

The other companies dismiss Mr. Harrison's oft-repeated remarks as scare tactics.

"We have absolutely no plans to go into the mutual fund business," said Matthew Cone, a Microsoft financial product manager. "If we were to do that, we would put a serious amount of business at jeopardy."

Because banks are Microsoft's second-largest revenue segment, Mr. Cone said, "you'd really have to make a very difficult decision to go in and compete with your customers."

Microsoft hopes to broaden its market share this fall, when it will release a new version of Money that enables customers to transact with multiple financial institutions.

Managing Your Money does not have such capability, nor will it in the future. To do so would compromise the company's bank-oriented strategy.

Intuit is coming out with a "lighter" transaction-based product this summer, aimed at customers who do not want to track their money through historical reports and pie charts but do want to pay bills at home.

"I think one of the reasons we're being painted as the bad buy is that we have nine million users, so in essence, we're No. 1," said Sheryl Ross, an Intuit spokeswoman. "I think whenever you become a market leader, people are going to take shots at you."

To date, 37 financial institutions have signed up to license Quicken, which, like Money, is also sold on its own through retail outlets.

Ms. Ross said customers have already "spoken with their money" by favoring Quicken over its rivals. But, she added, "It's such a nascent market that there are going to be a lot of players."

Analysts say the biggest obstacle facing Meca is the fact that Money and Quicken are bundled into virtually every PC that is sold. Meca increasingly will depend on banks' marketing of Managing Your Money.

"To some extent, the marketplace has spoken," said Gary Meshell, a consultant at Price Waterhouse, referring to the dominance of Quicken and the rising popularity of Money.

"I support what Meca is doing from an intellectual and philosophical perspective," Mr. Meshell said. "I think Meca represents the best opportunity for banks to stave off the threat of disintermediation from Intuit and, to a lesser extent, from Microsoft."

But, he asked, "Can the banks market their own branded home banking product?" Meca has "a number of banks that are willing to parley with them for a while, but the ability to execute is going to be the issue."

Richard K. Crone, an independent banking consultant in Irwindale, Calif., said Meca has a long slog ahead.

"Regardless of the capacity, whether the version is heavy, full-bodied, or light, there is still an issue here in terms of managing an electronic file cabinet," Mr. Crone said. "Consumers are not good at that, as shown by the fact that less than half the population actually balances their checkbook."

Mr. Crone said less than a quarter of the home banking market "really wants to analyze their finances in the detail that Quicken or Money or Managing Your Money does."

Mr. Crone contended the Internet will become the banking channel of choice, and banks that get involved in distributing software will find the business to be a "fatal distraction."

So far, most banks have been hedging their bets with strategies that include both the Internet and more conventional on-line home banking channels.

Some banks are already reporting positive results. At NationsBank, which began offering a Managing Your Money service at the beginning of April, 40,000 customers enrolled within a few weeks.

Bank of America will soon be introducing an enhanced home banking service that will be based on Managing Your Money.

Meca boasts that its five bank owners - the others are First Bank System, Fleet Financial Group, and Royal Bank of Canada - give the company access to a potential customer base of 40 million people. Meca is also introducing a new "Class B" ownership level for banks that want do not want to pay for full partnership status.

Some observers take a dim view of this strategy, arguing that banks may be reluctant to join if it means divulging their strategies to many rivals. But Mr. Harrison said banks are expressing interest in the Class B opportunity, which requires more than a $1 million investment.

Meca's owners are also teaming up with other banks and International Business Machines Corp. to form a jointly owned home banking infrastructure. Mr. Harrison said he has not learned from the parent banks what role, if any, Meca will play in the venture. But he said the new company will not compete with Meca, since it will be offering "the middleware layer and the bill processing."

Mr. Harrison, whose background is in finance and operations at technology companies, joined Meca in 1990, the year the company went public, and became president in 1993, after Mr. Schley left.

Mr. Schley - whose new company, Home Financial Network, offers software products for the "lite" and "ultralite" ends of the market - said Mr. Harrison has done a "terrific job." But he said he could run into problems from having to satisfy so many bosses.

"To the extent that the banks allow him to be a CEO and allow him to execute a strategy and vision, he'll do well," Mr. Schley said.

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