New year sets m-banking test

Mobile telecoms operators want a slice of the busy banking market, reports Nick Huber

Mobile telecoms operators want a slice of the busy banking market, reports Nick Huber

The sharp downturn in the economy will cast a long shadow over IT projects in the financial services industry this year.

Budgets have shrunk in response to the slump. IT staff and consultants have been made redundant.

But despite the widespread economic gloom 2002 could be the year when long-predicted technologies and IT trends finally hit the corporate and consumer mainstream.

The finance sector is one of the heaviest investors in IT and traditionally a technology trailblazer.

Mobile banking, online payments and outsourcing will all see significant changes in the year ahead as companies try to get to grips with wireless technology and rethink their approach to IT, industry experts predict.

It will also be the year when companies attempt to win a better return from technologies, such as customer relationship management, which have so far promised more than they have delivered.

Analysts insist that there are certain emerging areas that financial services providers cannot afford to ignore.

The big movement is expected to be in mobile payments for small transactions. The market was thrown open by a draft European Commission directive last year which would allow non-banks to issue electronic money, so that almost any company can become a virtual bank.

Vodafone is already developing a mobile payment system to allow users to pay for small value items via their phones and other operators are likely to follow.

In combination with wireless technologies such as Bluetooth, new mobile payment services - including paying for online services and vending machines that can accept payments from mobile phones - have an enormous long-term potential, analysts believe.

Banks will have to consider their responses to these emerging competitors. One possibility would be for telecoms firms to work in partnership with banks, supplying micro payments at the front end of the new virtual banks.

Under this arrangement banks could use their vast back-office systems for processing transactions and transferring money from the back office to the Web.

"Banks have got to be in the 3G [third generation mobile technology] pool and working with the mobile operators," said Graham Taylor, vice-president of Gartner G2, the business strategy arm of the IT analyst firm.

"Micro payments on mobile phones will be big-time by the end of next year. Banks and telecoms firms should work together as they cannot do it all on their own," he said.

But if financial services providers are to cash in on mobile commerce this will require the seamless delivery of products across multiple-channels.

Web-based services will have to be integrated with bank branches, call centres and independent financial advisers. The idea is for customers to be able to deal with their banks via the Web, call centre or bank branch information service without noticing any delay.

But despite all the talk about companies' integrated multi-channel systems there is still plenty of room for improvement, according to industry experts. A robust multi-channel systems infrastructure will also help companies to extract better value from increasingly popular customer relationship management applications.

Last year saw the rise of the "mega" outsourcing deal - contracts running into hundreds of millions of pounds over more than 10 years. Although some were cancelled or failed at the negotiation stage, the trend will continue, analysts said. "I think we shall see the five to 10-year deal [throughout next year]," said Phil Morris, director of Morgan Chambers, the outsourcing consultancy.

"It generally makes more economic sense to have a longer deal but you need to weave better controls into the deal to make sure you get a better deal," he said.

Companies need to focus on agreeing business-related, rather than technology related service level agreements to get the most from outsourcing, he added.

"If you are an insurer you could say that every enquiry should be dealt with within 20 minutes and not just [having a service level agreement] for the PCs to work 99% of the time."

Whatever happens to the rest of economy the year ahead will be a challenging one for IT professionals in the financial services industry.

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