Apple Inc.'s popular iPhone has become a widely used mobile banking tool, but online brokerages may be pushing smart phone technology even further with trading services.
E-Trade Financial Corp. and TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. have both rolled out mobile trading applications — first for Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry devices and then for the iPhone — that some analysts say are the most advanced financial services currently available for phones.
Smart phones, particularly Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry, have been a corporate staple for most of the decade and are now taking off with consumers.
"Among domestic consumers there's a conversation taking place around how to incorporate smart phones into daily life," said Matthew Bienfang, a senior research director in brokerage and wealth management at TowerGroup, an independent research unit of MasterCard Inc.
According to Kelsey Group Inc., a market research firm in Princeton, N.J., smart phones or data devices now make up 19% of the U.S. consumer mobile market, and 50% of people the firm surveyed in October of last year said they intended to buy a smart device in the next two years.
Analysts said this trend makes E-Trade's introduction of a free mobile trading application, Mobile Pro, timely. The BlackBerry version came out last year and an iPhone version was released in May.
"Last year the BlackBerry clearly had the largest amount of demand in the smart phone space," said Paul Vienick, a senior vice president of product management at E-Trade. "But in the last year we realized that while the BlackBerry is still important, the iPhone has become very popular."
The Mobile Pro application for the BlackBerry recorded 2 million logins from its July 2008 launch to May 2009. In the first quarter of this year logins jumped nearly 30%, according to TowerGroup.
The Mobile Pro application for the iPhone was the most downloaded application in the financial section of Apple's App Store for iPhone applications for several weeks after its introduction and has consistently been in the top five since then, Vienick said.
The Mobile Pro features for the iPhone are similar to those for the BlackBerry. Both include access to bank and brokerage account details; charting and watch-list capabilities; free real-time streaming stock and option quotes; the ability to trade stocks and options, including conditional orders; transfers of funds between brokerage and bank accounts, including deposits not held at E-Trade; and live portfolio updates.
"Right now, consumers are especially concerned about the state of the markets. More and more, individual investors want regular and immediate access to market information," Michael Curcio, E-Trade's president, said in a press release when the iPhone version was announced.
And increasingly they will want that access through a smart phone, Vienick said. He cited a survey that found that 50% of consumers expect the mobile channel to be the primary way they access their accounts in the near future.
Mike George of Cambridge, Mass., has been using Mobile Pro for Blackberry since March, checking his accounts every day and trading several times a week. "It's absolutely a big improvement" over accessing his account with a computer, he said. He particularly likes the ease of navigation and the ability to transfer funds between his E-Trade accounts and those at other financial companies.
His one quibble is that he can't view his portfolio's overall performance during a single day — or can't figure out how to do so. He can track the movements of individual funds, but not all of his fund, he said.
Bienfang said that among online brokerage firms E-Trade is the leader in promoting a mobile platform. Its main competition is TD Ameritrade, and to a lesser extent Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC. All three companies are heavily promoting their mobile services, online and in advertisements.
Bienfang said E-Trade distinguishes itself in a couple of critical ways: the ability to transfer funds from other financial companies, and free, real-time streaming market data.
E-Trade developed the software with Vaultus Mobile Technologies Inc., which is known for using open architectures and standards; Vienick said E-Trade did not just hand off the project. The company was "very hands-on with the beta release to make sure it passed the sniff test. This was not just a tool to keep up with the market, but for account access and trade access."
Though the iPhone release has much the same functionality as the BlackBerry, there are a few planned upgrades for the BlackBerry version. These include more advanced charting and watch-list features, and customizable landing pages.