Just think what you can do with personal computers: electronically learn a new language, plan your next vacation, redesign your home -- even play a mean game of solitaire, changing the card backs each time you lose.
Now, your favorite financial institution is -- or soon will be -- offering computerized banking. Online, all the time.
Online banking is nothing new. A number of institutions over the last 15 years have pushed the concept, then backed off; pushed again, then backed off; and now are into Round Three. The difference this time is that the concepts of cybercash, computer-screen money transfers and bill-paying by modem finally could be accepted by the masses.
"Online banking is something that banks feel they have to do; they see the train coming down the track," said Kevin T. Timmons, a banking analyst with First Albany Corp.
The latest estimate is that roughly 200, or just 1 percent, of financial institutions in North America offer online banking. But because so many large players are on the electronic wagon, the service is available to 60 percent of banking customers.
"We estimate there are roughly 1.5 million users signed up to access their accounts electronically, with 1.5 million signed to do bill payment," said Jim Bruene, the Seattle-based editor and publisher of industry newsletter Online Banking Report. "Probably about 2 million users are both accessing accounts and paying bills. That's roughly 1.5 percent to 2 percent of U.S. households, but we see that growing to 20 percent by the year 2000."
Bruene said the wild card concerning how large and how fast online banking grows is Internet access. Direct access to a Web site to do your banking could cause online banking to explode.
Locally, the larger players have some sort of online banking system in place -- or are hustling to get one up and running. The first to come to mind is Citibank. "The Citi never sleeps," particularly when it comes to running its online banking television commercials.
Citibank is one of a number of larger online purveyors that have developed or soon will roll out their own software. Included in that ever-growing list are KeyCorp and Fleet Financial.
"With proprietary software, you're able to customize your offering more to the customer's needs," said Christine Olsen, Key Bank of New York's Buffalo District marketing manager. Key's "Key Right at Home" package currently is in pilot form and will be brought out big-time by the second quarter of next year.
"We felt it was important to deliver PC banking consistent with other Fleet products, with a look and feel similar to other Fleet delivery channels," said David Fingerman, Fleet Financial Group's vice president of Electronic Banking. Fleet's proprietary online banking software moves into the pilot project mode this week, and will be mass marketed by year's end.
Key also last month, along with 14 other financial institutions, signed a deal with IBM to offer the Integrion Financial Network, a secured network owned and operated by its members. Integrion will allow customers to access accounts via the Internet, through online services, via IBM's Global Network, or over the telephone.
M&T Bank took another tack, which a number of institutions are following: playing off well known, personal-finance software. Even if you haven't a clue what they do, chances are you've heard of Microsoft Money and Intuit Inc.'s Quicken. M&T earlier this year brought out its PC program, but really put the push on last month with the introduction of M&T OnLine.
No dummy, M&T also lowered its online pricing, which alone will generate more interest in its computerized services.
"M&T OnLine is available through Quicken, Microsoft Money and BankNOW!, which is accessible through (online service provider) America OnLine," said David Kausch, M&T's electronic banking product manager.
Bank On-Line allows a user to view his or her savings, checking and Visa account balances, to transfer funds, reconcile accounts, download posted transactions or send messages to the bank electronically. Originally, M&T was charging customers with less than $10,000 in combined accounts $9.95 for this service; today, access is free.
"Charging $9.95 to access accounts was at the high end of normal about a year ago, but you won't get widespread acceptance at that price," Online Banking's Bruene said. "People say 'The bank already has my money and is making money off it, why should I pay to see my accounts?' "
With Bank On-Line, M&T customers also can sign up for Pay On-Line, allowing bill paying over the telephone line, or (through Microsoft Money only) Quotes On-Line, allowing a user to receive stock quotes. Pay On-Line costs $6.95 for 20 or fewer bill payments per month, while Quotes On-Line is $4.95 per month, both down from $14.95 before to last month. Combined, all three services are $9.95 per month versus a previous $17.95.
M&T right now will throw in the Quicken software to get customers going free of charge.
"We're getting a number of phone inquiries (about our online service), and we've sent out information about it in our monthly statements," said Kausch. The bank also has put a major advertising push on to convince customers to plug in.
Even smaller banks, thrifts and credit unions are preparing to stick their plug into online banking.
"We are looking at it, it is around the corner and we feel it is important to the growth of our retail operation," said Chuck Clark a spokesman for Lockport Savings Bank.
"We're presently looking at it and I have no idea when we will have it, but if it becomes cost-effective, the bank will offer it," said Randolph C. Brown, president and chief executive officer of First Tier Bank and Trust of Salamanca.
There's no big secret why banks, thrifts and credit unions of all sizes are studying online use projections and reading up on the best ways to hook the "Net." Financial institutions -- as is their wont these days -- are caught between the proverbial boulder and a rigid point: If they don't embrace the electronics, technology and telecommunications companies are readying products to eat their lunch. But to become online-proficient costs big money -- billions for an industry that still is trying to get more out of automated teller machines, while tweaking their bricks and mortar branch systems.
Balancing expenses versus potential customer losses has been compared to trying to catch a moving bus. Or that train coming down the track.
Still, the potential customer base is lip-smacking. In 1995, more than 30 million households had PCs, with more than one-third using some sort of personal finance software.
There also is another big reason why institutions are looking to online banking: profit -- big profit. First Albany's Timmons said the typical cost for processing a paper check is $1, versus 10 cents for an electronic transaction. That sounds to me like pretty profitable odds.
There are some bugs in the system to be worked out. Concerns for account security often are raised. And what do you do when your payment, for whatever reason, is lost in cyberspace and you get socked with a late fee? Proponents of online banking say the issue of security is being handled adequately. As for lost electronic payments, Timmons pointed out the U.S. Postal Service isn't 100 percent foolproof, either.
Another online pothole is that a number of vendors cannot yet accept electronic payments. But again, as the consumer tide continues to rise, with more and more people getting comfortable with payment via computer, department stores, utilities, etc. will be forced to accept the inevitable.
And that inevitability could soon sweep everyone into the online network.
IRS slates electronic filing seminar
The Internal Revenue Service will hold a free seminar for anyone interested in filing taxes electronically at 8:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesday in the IRS office in the Appletree Business Park, Union and Bennett roads in Cheektowaga. To register, call 551-5037.