Visa International is expected to announce today its support for the delivery of home-banking services through small, hand-held computers.

The devices, about the size of a paperback novel, are still far from ubiquitous, but Visa executives see a niche in serving the consumers who use them. And bankers say the niche could soon grow.

"This technology is revolutionary, but I think the time is right for these devices on the market," said Robin Nenninger, a senior vice president for nonbranch delivery at Star Banc Corp., Cincinnati.

Visa Interactive, the card association's remote banking arm, plans to run pilots with four institutions: Star; Deposit Guaranty National Bank of Jackson, Miss.; Zions First National Bank of Salt Lake City; and Universal 1 Credit Union of Dayton, Ohio.

In the next few months these players expect to let groups of employees use the small computers to access and update account information, pay bills, transfer funds, and conduct other account-related activities. The services then may be extended to other customers of the banks.

The devices - known as personal digital assistants, or PDAs - now cost up to $800, so that they appeal mainly to upscale consumers. But an expected price drop may soon broaden their appeal, says William Hall, a senior vice president at Zions Bank.

For now, Visa Interactive will support only Sony Electronics' Magic Link PIC-2000, which incorporates an operating system by software developer General Magic Inc. It is considered a higher-end model.

But Brent Robinson, senior vice president at Visa Interactive, said the card association plans to extend its support to hand-held computers made by other manufacturers, including Motorola Corp., by the end of this year.

Until recently, hand-held computer devices had little memory, and were used primarily as computerized address books or calendars. But technological improvements are making the appliances an increasingly viable delivery mechanism for financial services.

French smart-card manufacturer Schlumberger in November took the first steps toward adding a smart-card reader to Apple Computer Inc.'s hand-held Newton computer. If the Newton can be rigged to deliver cash value to a smart card, the PDA could become a functional equivalent of an automated teller machine.

Visa Interactive already supports remote banking via touch-tone phone, screen telephone, and personal computer.

By embracing the smaller, lesser-known sibling of the personal computer, Visa hopes to push banking to a more accessible level.

Ms. Nenninger of Star Banc said Visa's support of personal digital assistants should help hasten the acceptance of such devices in banking.

But some observers questioned whether PDAs with the power to handle home banking would get cheap enough in the near-term to attract a critical mass of users.

"I don't see people using PDAs any time in the near future to do home banking," said David Weisman, an analyst with Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass.

An August 1995 survey by Forrester found that 95% of 58 respondents had no plans to offer services via hand-held computers.

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