Manatee banking on the run

Mobile devices increasingly used to check bank accounts, make deposits

chawes@bradenton.comJuly 18, 2011 

Convenience, for banking customers, used to mean being able to make a phone call for your balance. About 15 years ago, it evolved to mean the ability to check your accounts on your home computer, 24 hours a day.

Today, banking convenience has moved even farther up the continuum of “right here, right now.” Mobile banking, the blanket term for conducting bank inquiries and transactions by mobile phone, enables customers to monitor their money while watching TV, traveling, dining, watching a ball game, or even sitting in the hot tub.

“Mobile banking has really redefined this notion of convenience,” says Jinee Ellis, vice president of mobile banking for Wells-Fargo, one of the first banks to introduce mobile banking in 2002. “When customers think of something, such as ‘Did that check clear?’ or ‘Did I make that payment?’ they’re able to take care of that item right away and essentially do away with their to-do list, which is a lot easier than having to make a mental note.

“They’re able to actually fit banking into their lifestyle on a daily basis, as opposed to having to set aside time to do their financial tasks.”

An estimated 200 million people worldwide make use of mobile banking now, according to Juniper Research. That number is expected to double in the next two years.

Although several companies, including Wells-Fargo, first introduced some form of mobile banking in the early 2000s, the trend didn’t start picking up until 2007. In fact, Wells- Fargo and most other banks dropped the service early on because “people weren’t ready for it,” says Mary Monahan, executive vice president for Javelin Strategy and Research.

But since its second go-round, mobile banking has rocketed in popularity. In 2008, just 12 percent of adults with mobile phones partook of mobile banking, Monohan says. By 2009, that percentage had grown to 18 percent.

While the mobile banking community grew little during 2010, a blip Monahan attributes to the struggling economy and a drop in mobile phone ownership, the trend is now growing again.

JP Morgan Chase saw its mobile banking users grew from 3 million in early 2010 to 10 million today, says spokesperson Eileen Leveckis. Bank of America has 7 million mobile bankers, says consumer market executive Steven Lee, and Wells-Fargo had 5.5 million mobile bankers at the start of this year, according to Ellis.

Even small local institutions like Manatee Community Federal Credit Union have begun offering limited versions of mobile banking. Spokesperson Suanne White says Manatee Community began offering a text version of mobile banking six months ago, and estimates that six of 10 customers are now making use of it.

“It’s still in the early stages,” White says, “But it’s the trend now. You’ve got to keep up with everything now, especially with what the young people are doing.”

Texting is one of three forms of mobile banking currently offered. Customers can use code words to request balance information, set up automatic text alerts about balances and transactions, and even transfer limited amounts.

Another form of mobile banking is to log on to websites crafted specifically for smartphone browsing. They also offer limited services; for instance, Wells-Fargo doesn’t allow customers to set up automatic bill payments through its browser, Ellis says, because doing so would make for an unwieldy user interface.

“Our design principle is, we want to mobilize and not miniaturize,” she says. “We don’t want to take our online stuff and just shrink it. We want to make sure it’s optimized for mobile devices.”

The most service-packed form of mobile banking is through downloadable applications, which allow almost every imaginable banking service. Customers can not only check balances, transfer money among accounts, and arrange payments; with some banks, including Chase, they can also deposit checks by taking a picture with their mobile phones.

“Our customers love QuickDeposit,” Leveckis says of Chase’s mobile remote deposit program. “It’s so convenient and so timely, and it’s fitting in what our customers need right now as they continue to use their smartphones more and more.”

Mobile remote deposit is still not offered by most banks, but Javelin’s research shows that it soon will be, Monahan says.

“It’s a hot product. Many consumers want it,” she says. “We took a survey and found that one out of four desired it. Our normal consumer interest is only 9 percent, so when you see that 24 percent want it, that’s really high for a financial product.

“Among mobile bankers, 52 percent of consumers want it. We also did a survey of 25 bank executives, and 50 percent said that within a year, they’d be offering it.”

Security remains the greatest barrier to widespread public acceptance of mobile banking. In fact, White says lingering security concerns are the reason why Manatee Community hasn’t pursued mobile remote deposit.

Concerns about security are even more widespread given the growth in popularity of the Android smartphone, which Monahan says overtook the iPhone this year on the smartphone market.

“It’s an open platform, it’s put out by many carriers in many models, and it’s cheaper,” Monahan says. “But it’s also less secure. So we advise that consumer wait for a while before they download and app from the Android market. Let it get vetted by the market.”

Monahan also recommends that consumers download antivirus software onto their smartphones before participating in mobile banking.

“Banks need to build secure applications, but the consumer also needs to be careful about what they do. They have to be just as careful with their phones as they are with their computers.”

Christine Hawes, Herald business writer, can be reached at (941) 745-7081.

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