Voice Command Is on the Cusp of Banking Reality
The question is fundamental: which is faster, and easier? Inputting commands into a smartphone by typing on glass or by talking them into the device?
The fact is these are phones that were developed so that users could talk into them. Other features such as data input via typing, for instance, got added on later.
Some mobile banking developers envision an era of much more powerful apps that will replicate essentially the whole of the online banking experience except this will happen on a tiny screen and without the spacious keyboard of laptops or desktop computers.
That has triggered a rush for new input tools beyond typing on glass, which is easily foiled by large fingers, bumpy conditions and screen glare. And in a pole position is the voice almost all of us have and which, again, is what the phone was originally designed around.
Siri, the Apple voice recognition app, is fast recruiting many users to the practice of talking to a phone to gain answers. So if similar technology will be coming to mobile banking very soon, where’s the nearest ATM? Consumers may wonder if their deposits have cleared or what their balance may be. A lot of banking revolves around simple questions a computer, it would seem, would easily learn.
Except not everybody is convinced that voice is a near-term solution in mobile banking and the upshot is a street fight with Brookfield, Wisc.-based Fiserv Inc. on one side and just about everybody else, notably FIS, mFoundry, and Malauzai, on the opposing side.
“Voice for navigation is not ready for prime time. People use it at first, then usage falls off,” said Doug Brown, an FIS senior vice president who also is general manager of FIS Mobile. “Siri is a little early. We are watching voice carefully but we don’t see it yet.”
The potential, suggested Brown, is enormous. But between device and network limitations and user issues such as calling in from a noisy room or talking with a bad head cold, there could be many ways for voice to go wrong. For now, FIS seems content to watch voice from the sidelines and let companies like Apple and Google, with its Voice Search, a Siri clone, duke it out.
Drew Sievers, CEO of Larkspur, Calif.-based mFoundry with around 900 mobile banking customers, offered a similarly downbeat forecast.
“Voice will be a neat feature and quite convenient, but there are far more pressing demands for money movement and offers delivery from both customers and end-users,” Sievers said, adding voice is on the to-do list but it is nowhere near the top.
Robb Gaynor, co-founder and chief technology officer at Austin, Texas-based mobile apps developer Malauzai which serves nearly 100 customers, made is on the naysayers’ side. “Currently, voice functionality proves to be more gadgetry than reality. If the technology actually worked, everyone would have it already,” Gaynor said. “It tends to not be mature enough to deliver cost effectively in a mass market way. I think that’s going to change, but it will take a while and for now, it’s not even on our roadmap.”
But then there is Fiserv, which presently has the lead in mobile banking installations with roughly 1,000 mobile banking customers. Unlike its competitors, voice is the word at the company, said Serge van Dam, a Fiserv vice president.
Last September, at the Finovate banking technology conference in New York, the company demonstrated a voice mobile banking app that “served as a proof of concept, van Dam said. In the video, a Fiserv executive scheduled payments to Home Depot and also to an electric utility. While there may have been a few glitches, they were minor.
“We showed this could work in our flagship mobile banking product,” said van Dam.
So is Fiserv pushing forward with plans to aggressively roll out voice-driven mobile banking? The answer gets complicated.
Van Dam conceded that his peers are right as far as they go; the appetite of financial institutions for pushing out voice as a mobile banking add-on is limited right now “until we change the paradigm,” he said.
That is why Fiserv said it is currently working on a potentially revolutionary use of voice where it becomes the way to log into an account, dispensing with username and password log-ins. That, suggested van Dam, could be the game changer that would trigger a stampede into voice as an input tool across a range of mobile banking commands.
What if the user has a sore throat and the authentication system refuses entry? No big deal, suggested van Dam, who indicated that user would then fall back onto the old fashioned username/password log-in.
“If your voice isn’t recognized, you’ll have other ways to gain entry When you build in voice authentication, you are creating a powerful use case for voice as an input tool,” said van Dam, who indicated that Fiserv was still buffing its product and thus, had no installations to point to. Still, he expressed confidence that indeed voice’s day is coming.
When? Texas bank USAA has won splashy headlines for a voice-driven mobile app that it is developing with voice recognition company Nuance in Burlington, Mass., for release in early 2013, according to press statements.
But USAA is the outlier, said Ben Lilienthal, CEO of OneTok, a New York company focused on adding voice to mobile apps, He noted that voice is starting to catch on fast in some sectors such as product search at mobile shopping sites but banking has been slower to commit. Still, said Lilienthal, voice in banking appears to be inevitable.
“It will happen, probably in 12 to 24 months. Banks will be forced to because their customers will want it.”
Ditto for credit unions and their members. Ready or not, voice is coming at you but exactly when, remains a large unknown.