Banks looking for growth predictions on the home banking market have a right to be confused.

Several research firms have issued markedly different numbers for both current and future use of PC-based home banking services. At least two of the companies attributed the differences to the demographic groups involved in their surveys.

Payment Systems Inc., Tampa, estimated that 900,000 to one million households bank using PCs today, and it predicted about 16 million users by 2000. Mentis Corp., Durham, N.C., put current usage at 500,000 and predicted fewer than four million users by 2000.

Mentis explained the lower numbers by its study's focus on a group widely considered the most likely to own and use a personal computer and modem. Members of this group range in age from 30 to 45, earn annual household income of at least $50,000, and hold at least a bachelor's degree.

But PC users no longer fall within this narrow demographic, said Mary Donadoni of PSI. In 1995, 49% of PC owners had incomes of less than $50,000, she said, and nearly 44% were older than 45.

"When the automobile was first on the market, total worldwide market projections were only one million. Projections were based on the owner profile at the time - wealthy enough to buy a custom-made car and hire a chauffeur," said Ms. Donadoni.

"If you base your potential market on your initial adopters, then you will miss the new users."

But James Moore, president of Mentis, offered cautionary words. "Of the top 30 banks, only 18 support home banking," he said.

In addition, he said, most home banking users will come from the narrow demographic for a few years, and Mentis' researchers found that many in this group have tried home banking systems and found they offered limited services.

Other researchers also have weighed in.

New York-based Jupiter Communication Co.'s recently updated numbers put the number of PC home banking users at 1.2 million. And the total should grow to nearly 13 million by 2000, Jupiter executives said.

The question is not whether home banking will grow but "only how fast it is going to grow," said Jupiter analyst Phoebe Simpson.

Some form of electronic home banking is offered by 150 banks to 835,000 registered users, according to Jim Bruene, editor of Seattle-based Online Banking Report.

Most of these banks offer home banking via direct connections, but Mr. Bruene said he anticipates a growing segment will allow access to account information from the World Wide Web.

Of the 545 U.S. financial institutions with Web sites, only five currently offer such services. The worldwide total of banks with a Web presence has exploded from only 20 at the end of 1994 to more than 1,000 today.

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