MILAN - Visa International, in hot pursuit of strategic alliances it deems beneficial to member banks, has announced a computer networking partnership with International Business Machines Corp.
The bank-owned association said it will use Advantis, IBM's global business communications network, to deliver a broad range of information services to its more than 20,000 card-using institutions around the world.
Visa officials said IBM's network will allow them, beginning in phases this year, to replace an expensive and unwieldy distribution system of diskettes and paper printouts with a streamlined interconnected network of desktop computers. Member banks will get on-line access to their extensive VisaVue transaction data base as well as risk management programs, marketing and analytical tools, administrative bulletins, and other services that lend themselves to direct data exchanges.
The teaming of the bank card and computer industry titans, currently in the form of an agreement in principle, was announced this week at an international Visa directors meeting here. It is emblematic of far-reaching strategic changes at both organizations to adjust to the so-called client/server revolution in information processing, and of Visa's concerted effort to bond with companies that can help Visa and its banks accomplish what they cannot do easily on their own.
Visa International president Edmund Jensen called the IBM deal "an example of Visa's complementary role" in a context similar to that of its alliance announced last year with another technology heavyweight, Microsoft Corp. That effort, aimed at developing security for card transactions on open computer networks like the Internet, created controversy when it appeared for on-line relationships with consumers.
Visa quieted that criticism by explaining to bankers that Microsoft was well suited to the task, and by committing to share the results for the project with MasterCard and others. Also, Microsoft may seem less of a threat now that it has terminated plans to acquire Intuit Inc., maker of the most popular software program for personal financial management.
The IBM arrangement is not likely to raise Microsoft-like hackles. IBM is a known quantity in banking, long a principal vendor to Visa and most of its key members.
But the relationship between Visa and the unit that markets itself as the IBM Global Network covers territory very different from that of traditional mainframe computing. Mr. Jensen and other Visa executives spoke in almost revolutionary terms about how it will change communications with member banks and give them more immediate, competitive advantages in serving cardholders and merchants.
William Chenevich, Visa's group executive vice president for systems, said it would have taken two to three years to build what the IBM Global Network already makes possible: "One common delivery system for VisaVue and a host of other services" and "communication to the desktops of all Visa members."
IBM Global Network describes itself as "the world's largest integrated data and video network," with users in more than 700 cities and 100 countries. The system was developed by Advantis, originally an equal partnership of IBM and Sears, Roebuck and Co., in which Sears retains a minority interest.
Mr. Chenevich said IBM's functionality and promised speed of implementation were critical selection criteria. While IBM has "existing on-line service capability," other candidates like AT&T, MCI, and Microsoft "are all focused on getting their basic business up."
"We were looking for a provider that could make their existing infrastructure available to us on a private-label basis," the systems executive said. "IBM had a functionality advantage and could commit to an expansion of the Prodigy platform, having made the move to client/server over the last two years."
Client/server is a departure from mainframe computing, replacing centralization of computer power with relatively small workstations tied together in networks. Mr. Chenevich, who has a long-term plan to move much of Visa's processing toward client/server, said he expects to have pilots running on the IBM network in selected cities by the fourth quarter and all existing services, including the target marketing and portfolio management tools in VisaVue, converted for on-line PC delivery within 18 months.
In demonstrations at the meeting in Milan, which attracted Visa board members from all six association regions, the system was described as a "launch pad" for numerous services, ranging from the catalogue of bank identification numbers, currently stored in CD-ROM, to electronic mail. Fraud alerts, currently distributed via a General Electric Co. network, will move to the launch pad.
Visa said that its delivery of risk management "information on demand" to desktop computers beginning early this year has helped members save about $80 million from the use of preventive neural network technology.
"By leveraging card transaction data and economies of scale, we can deliver to the member banks' desktops an array of information products and services while still protecting consumer privacy and confidentiality of members' information," said Francois Dutray, group executive vice president, products. "Members will be empowered to strengthen customer relationships, improve operating efficiencies, and reduce their exposure to risk - positively impacting bottom-line results while providing additional services to cardholders."