Last month, Charlotte-based Wachovia ($700 billion in assets) rolled out a new mobile banking offering to its online customers. Simply dubbed Wachovia Mobile, the service is designed to allow retail customers to access their account data via Internet-enabled wireless devices, such as cell phones and PDAs.
Wachovia Mobile is the first phase of the bank's wireless retail banking strategy, according to Ilieva Ageenko, Wachovia's director of emerging applications. The product is being offered for free to those Wachovia customers in the bank's Web banking program. Users can view and monitor account activity, transfer money among eligible accounts and check account balances.
In order to increase efficiency and give customers a consistent experience, Ageenko notes, Wachovia developed a patented technique that allows the bank to maintain one Web site for both the PC and mobile banking offerings. "We have one version of our Web site for PC browsers and wireless browsers," she explains. "Today, companies have to maintain two separate Web sites. We maintain one so customers see an exact replica of our Web site on their mobile devices."
Wachovia Mobile is designed to operate using Microsoft (Redmond, Wash.) Windows Mobile 5 with Pocket Internet Explorer, and it also works with BlackBerrys. According to Ageenko, however, the user interface in Windows is more engaging than the interface found on BlackBerry devices. "The user interface in Windows Mobile is more user-friendly. But customers with BlackBerrys can still do the same exact activities," she says. "Microsoft developed the Pocket PC operating system based on industry standards, so it was a good fit for what we wanted to do. When you get into proprietary protocols, things become more costly and complicated." The bank currently is working on making the mobile banking product compatible with other mobile operating systems, such as Palm O/S, Ageenko notes.
The bank also has plans for bringing bill pay capability to Wachovia Mobile. However, "It's not a trivial process to transfer what you have on your Web site to a mobile device," Ageenko comments. "We have to do extensive customer usability testing to make modifications as necessary."
As with any mobile banking operation, security is paramount. Wachovia designed the new application to provide the exact security protocols as its PC banking product, Ageenko stresses. "All the information is protected by our security and authentication layers," she relates. "There is 128-bit encryption, user ID and password. We also use an invisible layer of security that monitors all account activity."
Mobile Banking Begins to Take Off
Mobile banking has been around in some form for more than a decade. However, it was not until recently that the technology and the users in the U.S. started to catch up with one another. "Back in the '90s, this was such a new technology and nothing was device agnostic, so it was tough to get it all done," reflects Catherine Graeber, principal analyst with Forrester Research (Cambridge, Mass.) "To the average consumer, it was still too early on [to try mobile banking]."
Despite the growing acceptance of mobile devices as a part of everyday life, however, figures from Forrester show that most consumers still aren't demanding mobile banking. "There's really not too much interest in this. Only 10 percent of online consumers said they were interested in accessing their financial information via mobile device," Graeber explains. "Among Gen Y, the figure was 20 percent."
While mobile banking's proverbial iron may not be red-hot, it's certainly heating up, at least for Wachovia. Since December, the bank has recorded "several thousand wireless sessions a day, and we haven't even done significant marketing around this yet," according to the bank's Ageenko. "Convenience and better customer service were driving factors in this initiative."
Although Wachovia developed its mobile banking offering in-house, a number of vendors provide banks with mobile banking solutions, including ClairMail (Novato, Calif.), mFoundry (Sausalito, Calif.) and Firethorn (Atlanta).
Forrester's Graeber expects other large banks to "tip toe" into the mobile space in 2007. First, however, banks need to determine how they want to approach mobile banking, she says. "Do we use the old way, which was more Web-enabled with different screens for different applications, or do we use the new way, which involves text messaging and is more interactive?" Graeber asks. "It won't be an overnight success. It will require a market leader to decide what it is first."