Hoping to make personal financial management software an easier sell to banks, vendors are touting a smaller-is-better approach.
Consumers are eager to use these financial management tools through their banks' Web sites, but relatively few financial companies actually offer them, and one hurdle has been installing the software.
The current generation of financial management applications typically offers extensive features, but these full-powered software packages can be difficult to tie in to banks' systems. Technology vendors are now rolling out a wave of widgets — bite-size chunks of Internet code that are easy to install and allow users to pick and choose the features they need.
The advantage of using widgets, vendors say, is that banks can install them quickly and easily and that the flexibility can give financial companies a new way to reach consumers.
"Once you set it up, it just runs. It's that simple," said Michael Ferrari, a co-founder and the chief operating officer of Smarty Pig LLC.
The Des Moines company works with banks to offer high-yield online savings accounts coupled with social networking features, and this week it introduced a widget that lets users post updates regarding their progress toward financial goals on 30 Web sites, including Facebook and Twitter.
"You can start to see the viral nature of this." Ferrari said. "People can see your progress toward your goals. Mom and dad can contribute. These social features don't exist in any banking institution anywhere."
Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at the research and advisory firm Aite Group LLC in Boston, said the widget approach is easier than more complex software applications that require better technical integration. "It's all about the portability of data and the portability of functionality," he said.
Even so, he said, banks may want to approach the new technology with caution. "There's an unproven business case for this approach so far," he said. Rather than focusing on the most cutting-edge features, he said, vendors "ought to be focusing on driving the value and the utilization of these PFM tools for their users."
Smarty Pig was one of several banking technology vendors that announced financial management widgets this week, coinciding with Tuesday's annual Finovate conference in New York.
Perhaps the most prominent example was that of Mint Software Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., which announced at the conference an agreement to offer its widget, Budget by Mint.com, on the Yahoo.com home page, the most visited page on the Internet. Yahoo overhauled its site this summer using widgets to give users control over the content they get there.
"Having our budget app on the new Yahoo home page allows us to reach more than 100 million people in the U.S.," said Aaron Patzer, the founder and chief executive of Mint, which has agreed to sell itself to Intuit Inc., also of Mountain View.
Mint's Yahoo widget focuses on budgeting, spending and alerts, Patzer told the several hundred bankers, technology executives and venture capitalists at the conference, which was sponsored by Online Financial Innovations of Seattle, which also publishes Online Banking Report and the blog NetBanker.
"Budgeting and spending is what people do most on Mint," Patzer said. "We're up to 16 million users at this point."
Intuit has its own plans for widgets. Albert Ko, a senior vice president in its financial institutions unit, said that, once the coming tax season ends, "we are introducing a series of new tax tools for buying a home or saving for retirement." Intuit developed the widely used Quicken financial management software and operates the TurboTax online tax preparation service. It has also linked its Finance Works PFM application to Turbo Tax to automatically load eligible purchases into the tax service, though this project does not use widgets.
Strands Inc., a "recommendation engine" provider from Corvallis, Ore., showed its "moneyStrands" PFM, which has attracted 72,000 users since its direct-to-consumer launch in March.
It also offers a version that banks can brand and deliver to customers. Anna Codina, the vendor's business development manager, said the Spanish bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA attracted 200,000 users within three months of offering Strands' technology.
"BBVA is turning the PFM tool into a revenue source" by using moneyStrands' recommendation widget to put personalized loan offers, such as mortgages, in front of the most relevant prospects, Codina said.
Tile Financial, a New York start-up, showed off its "investing learning environment" widget, a modular PFM tool aimed at the next generation of high-value investors, mainly people 15 to 25 years old.
"We are not just another budgeting tool or just another PFM tool," said Amy Butte, a co-founder and the chief executive of the company.
Instead, its modules focus on spending, investing and giving and are designed to let personal financial advisers work with parents to educate their children about managing their trust funds, with social features to help the young people see, for instance, where their peers are making charitable contributions.
This approach can help a bank, or other adviser, build a relationship with an investor's heirs, who may otherwise feel no loyalty to keep the money with the same custodian, Butte said. Tile said it begins beta-testing this quarter with a major financial institution.
Other companies showed off widget-development tools.
S1 Corp. of Atlanta introduced a "class of service library" that lets bankers quickly build widgets that customize online financial services. A banker could build a widget for affluent consumers, for instance, by enabling retail customers to initiate a domestic or international wire transfer, or could add small-business management features to the affluent-customer module.
"This is really at the heart of tailored banking, serving the unique needs of any market segment," said Mark Moore, the vice president of marketing in S1's enterprise unit.
Yodlee Inc. of Redwood City, Calif., previewed Yodlee 10, which is to be available in early 2010. Peter Hazlehurst, its senior vice president of products, said the company is offering a software development kit so that third parties can develop widgets for the Yodlee environment.
"We've got a bunch of new developers coming in through our SDK now," Hazlehurst said.
Yodlee plans to develop an "app store" where a developer could offer, for instance, a mashup incorporating features from Google Maps, he said. "Yodlee is going to be able to release its own widgets, and third parties', and banks are going to be able to offer them to their customers."
The individual widgets, or modules, will be extensively customizable by individual users, Intuit's Ko said in an interview later. And because Finance Works, which is used by about 200 Digital Insight customers and roughly 40 other institutions, ties in to the underlying online banking service, it can draw on transactional records to make the financial planning service more useful, he said, adding, "I can make it much more interactive because I know who you are."