Slowly but surely, mobile banking is living up to its hype as the next must-have thing that credit unions need to survive.
Industry players generally agree that 2010 was a year in which mobile banking was front and center. It was year that saw the explosion of iPhone and Android apps, the "triple play" of choosing between downloadable app, SMS and browser-based options often becoming no choice but to offer all three, and last but not least, the splashy debut of iPads and the tablets that follow.
But what kind of adoption and penetration is really going on? It depends on perspective.
For instance, Drew Sievers, co-founder and CEO of mFoundry said his Larkspur, Calif., company went from about 60 financial institutions using his mobile banking platform to about 240 in one year, a lot of that through such major vendors as PSCU, CO-OP, FIS, First Data and NCR.
"The technology here is moving in a bell curve, with innovators and early adopters, like the big banks, going first. I'd say 2009 was the year of the early adopters with the big fat part of the bell curve coming in 2010," Sievers said. "That's where mobile banking crossed the chasm from being experimental to something that financial institutions of all sizes found they can't live without."
Then there's this view. "Penetration needs to be defined by the number of credit unions deploying some type of mobile service vs. the number of humans actually using the service. There's a big disparity between the marketing hype and the reality of it," said Jason Marshall, director of product development at Harland Financial Services of Lake Mary, Fla.
Harland said it has more than 70 credit unions signed on for mobile banking with about 5,300 members actually using the service. The company said it counts as "users" only members who are actually accessing their account to make transactions, check balances and other tasks, not just members who receive alerts.
Marshall said Harland has seen a large number of clients interested in mobile in recent months, but that "the number of consumers using it are still fairly low when compared to Internet or voice banking and bill pay."
That said, Marshall added, "The adoption rate [for mobile] has been pretty good. It's just not up to the initial hype that seemed to say that everyone has to have this in the next three months or perish."
Support issues for downloadable apps also present a problem, Marshall said, adding that his company now offers only SMS and browser-based mobile banking. "I'm putting my neck out a bit, but I'd say, especially in the Android world, if there are 60 different devices, the run-time experience for any app is going to be different for all 60 of them, and we're not going to be able to solve all 60 problems at the same time," the product development director said.
"Our clients cannot afford to take support calls from their members about it," he added. "The last thing their reps need are technical questions about why some button doesn't work on their phone."
Marshall said he sees his client base "really starting to look at how to reach members, really starting to market the service much more than they have. There hasn't been a whole lot of that so far in the credit union market, but now these institutions are starting to say, 'Hey, we have this offering, let's hype it up and see how much we can reach members and serve them in this new and different way.'"
Meanwhile, two new and different ways, P2P and RDC, are two areas of online banking where Fiserv Inc. sees a lot of growth taking place, according to Scott Butler, president of its Credit Union Solutions.
"We're in a more consumer-driven world. Consumers want to be able to make payments when and where they're ready to make them, and the more we can create ways for credit unions to stay in that mainstream, the more consumers will be interested in using credit unions," Butler said.
He said his operation is seeing particular interest in mobile RDC deployment at larger credit unions, and that "we'll definitely see more growth in those solutions, including at mid-sized and smaller credit unions, as the implementations become more packaged and less costly on a per-situation basis."
Butler said about 160 credit unions are now using Fiserv's Mobile Money application and that "actually credit unions that are using it, from very small to very large, are seeing good penetration results."
While some like to tout credit unions as being notably quick to adopt leading-edge solutions, others aren't so sure.
"It's always our challenge to be able to respond to our customers with enough speed to market, but it's also interesting how we find credit unions that want the products, service and technology but don't want to go first," said Pat Valentino, senior vice president of real-time solutions for FIS.
"They're looking for who else is already doing that, whatever that is, and balancing their backroom experience vs. their member experience. I think historically that's because credit unions feel a need to own the product in order to control it, and bringing all that ownership inside the credit union walls makes it a little more difficult to get the product to market as part of the member experience," Valentino said.
She added that FIS is now seeing a shift from that attitude, pointing to Internet bill pay as an example of "where you don't have to have the infrastructure inside your four walls to maintain control."
And one area where everyone points to as tough to control is security. Security in the mobile channel will continue to be a concern in the year ahead, industry participants said, including the growing threat of mobile malware.
"Cyber crooks will cash in on the app craze even more in 2011, targeting mobile phones for attack," said Rod Rasmussen, president and chief technology officer of Internet Identity, an online security specialist based in Spokane, Wash.
"Cyber criminals already have figured out ways to disguise malware as legitimate apps and then steal account and login information or get victim phones to make expensive phone calls without the phone's owner ever knowing a thing," Rasmussen said.
"We expect to see more and more rogue apps, along with attacks crafted to go over vulnerabilities in the operating systems that smart phones are based on, and in parallel to the PC world, the applications that are running on those platforms," he said.
Security concerns go along with compliance issues to make mobile banking tough to control, but generally, industry participants agree that Gen Y and those coming up behind them make the question of whether to go mobile a nonstarter.
"I think eventually they'll all have mobile banking," said Butler at Fiserv. "I would encourage it to happen sooner than later."