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CASHING IN ON A WEB LIFESTYLE

People get embarrassed if they accidentally overdraw a checking account, but they should feel just as sheepish about keeping too much money in a checking account that pays little interest.

Even sillier is something people do all the time. They carry expensive credit card debt even though they have funds in a checking account.

These kinds of mistakes will become much less common once people begin living what I call a "Web lifestyle." Shuffling resources between accounts is one example of a task that is bothersome today but that the Internet's World Wide Web will make easy tomorrow.

Today it takes patience to find information on financial, travel, health, entertainment and other opportunities. It takes time and trouble to act on the information you find.

Having grown up in a world of paper and fleeting television images, we take these information inefficiencies for granted. We don't complain because we haven't experienced dramatically better alternatives.

But the Web will offer far better alternatives and, as we begin to experience them, a Web lifestyle will take hold.

Use of the Web is rising spectacularly. Two years ago, basically no one got "news" from the Web. Now, even with photos from the Mars Pathfinder mission appearing in newspapers and on television, millions of people used the World Wide Web to browse the images themselves (at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/
marsnews/img/).

Despite the Web's surging usage, nobody really lives a Web lifestyle yet -- and won't, fully, until computers turn on instantly, network connections work faster, software is easier and people have lost their apprehension about computers and Internet security.

The people who come closest to living a Web lifestyle are certain college students. If somebody asks where to find Greek food, these kids check a Web site. If you were to quiz them about why they use the Web instead of the Yellow Pages, they might puzzle over the question. It would be like asking them why they use a television or the telephone.

As students move into the work force and the ease-of-use and manageability of computers improve, the Web will become thoroughly mainstream. The convergence of televisions and PCs will accelerate the trend.

I think it's safe to say that within 10 years most adults will be using electronic mail and living a form of Web lifestyle.

By then, and possibly much earlier, many people will manage their finances via the Web. Each bank will put up Web pages that present its products in an easy-to-use fashion, making it simple for customers to manage money quite well electronically.

As a customer, your funds will move automatically to meet your needs. You'll easily get answers to questions such as: "Am I saving enough?" "Have I pulled together all the information I need to file a tax return?" "Am I sticking to my family budget?" "How does this month's electric bill compare to the bill for the same month last year?"

These changes won't come at the expense of the banking industry. On the contrary, the future is bright not just for people who adopt a Web lifestyle, but also for institutions that evolve alongside. The Web will let companies offer services that are tailored to individual needs, an essential advantage.

Historically banks used branches to distribute products that had to appeal to every type of customer. On the Web, though, banks will create, package, market and deliver products for niche markets.

Technology will let banks get closer to customers, deliver a wider range of services at lower costs and streamline internal systems so that all customer data is integrated and can be used to spot trends that can lead to new products.

A variety of companies, including mine, want to help banks make the transition.

Productivity improvements tend to produce many more winners than losers. Life gets better when people discover a fundamentally better way to do something important.

That's why I don't worry, for example, that the Web will single-handedly dehumanize banking or anything else. For one thing, a lot of banking already takes place via mail, automatic teller machines and infuriating voice-mail systems. By comparison, a good interactive Web page will be a joy.

The Web will offer banks great opportunities, especially as their services expand to include insurance, advice and a broad range of investments.

Some banks will offer to manage your assets and provide you with credit. If your checking account balance gets too high, the bank will offer to move funds into appropriate investments that have higher yields.

Banks will advise you to pay down credit card balances or other loans -- and let you do it with a click. They'll know that if they don't give you this kind of advice and convenience, you'll likely take your business elsewhere.

Banks that really embrace the Web will go still further, providing products tailored to you. It will be interesting to see which banks step up to this opportunity.

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