Wells Fargo & Co. and 31 community banks and credit unions announced that their customers will be able to download account information from the Internet with the click of a button.
The technology is one of the first uses of Microsoft Corp.'s set of standards for electronic financial connections, which were introduced last March.
Called Active Statement Technology, advocates say that it will simplify the process of transferring account files from the World Wide Web to personal financial software programs.
Making data on Web sites easier to download is likely to encourage banking customers to go to the sites, industry observers said. That, in turn, would offer banks more chance to promote their services on the Internet.
"Today we offer both our Quicken and our Microsoft Money customers the ability to download information into their software spreadsheets," said Wells Fargo spokeswoman Janet Otsuki. But the features of Microsoft's new technology "will allow Money customers to have a more direct and more efficient downloading experience."
The benefits of that arrangement are hardly accidental from the standpoint of Microsoft, which has been aggressively battling Intuit Inc. for a greater share of the personal financial software market. Intuit's Quicken leads Money by 75% to 20%, according to a recent independent consumer study.
Microsoft offers its technology for free to all financial institutions, and it encourages banks to link their Web sites so that their customers will find a trial offer for the Money product.
Competing Web browsers will be able to download financial data, but Microsoft Money 97 is the only financial software able automatically to receive the information.
"We expect this will be a de facto technology that any bank would want to incorporate," said Matthew Cone, a business development manager at Microsoft.
Others familiar with Active Statement Technology said the program's ability to recognize information that has already been recorded offers a crucial advantage over the widely used Quicken Import Format.
"Comparing the Quicken Import Format to (Microsoft's technology) is like comparing apples to oranges," responded Intuit senior vice president Eric Dunn. "Automatic reconciling has been possible in both Quicken and Money for over a year."
By now, 275 financial institutions offer some form of PC banking, and 46 let customers gain access to their accounts from the Web, according to the Seattle-based Online Banking Report. But encouraging customers to come over via the Web may hold benefits for banks.
"Instead of starting with Money or Quicken, customers start at the bank's Web site," said Paul Fiore, chief executive of Digital Insight.
The Camarillo, Calif., company has helped 28 credit unions develop transactional Web sites. Without having to pay Microsoft for a direct connection, all those institutions now offer their customers the ability to download their finances easily into Money 97.
How soon will that affect consumers at those institutions? Cathi Cavanagh, home banking coordinator at the Plano, Tex., Community Credit Union, is already watching: "I am personally going to look to see if people are converting from Quicken to Microsoft Money."