Q&A (3): Intuit's Cook on open online banking

[Follows on from previous story]

Intuit is the company that took on Microsoft - in personal finance software - and won. The maker of Quicken is renowned for its quality of user interface design and marketing nous. In an exclusive interview, chairman Scott Cook told PCDN about his rivals, usability testing and his hopes for online financial services.

You still have an interest in Amazon.com

Yeah, I'm on the board and in part I agreed to do that so I could watch it closely. Amazon.com doesn't worry about payment - you do that with a credit card. They don't worry about delivery - it goes through FedEx, the mail.

What have been the barriers to the proliferation of online selling

The key problem that was starting to loom was you need a language to talk to the bank. You had OFC for Microsoft, you had Open Exchange from us, you had Visa with ADMS and IBM with the Gold Standard. That was going to yield all the usual problems of confusion and captivity, so when we set up [the open standard] OFX our goal was to broker all that. So the good news is that'll all happen; there's real progress on connecting people to their banks. And it's not just banks but building societies, investment houses, insurance, tax, accounting, personal finance.

OFX will reach consumers in the US in the Fall and we're building it up to be international. Accounting for the US is different to the UK is different to Germany. We're in a business where you can't just build it in the IS and ship the products worldwide. Americans have always done the same thing. Take the code, translate, and it'll work fine in Germany. This business is highly localised.

So OFX will be built into clients so you can use with multiple banking services?

That's right. What you see now is Microsoft and Barclay's doing a proprietary system. That's the old way. With OFX the stuff will be interoperable.

What sort of services do you plan to support?

We have life insurance you can get on the Web site with all the underwriting information so you can make decisions and we believe that this is the beginning of selling financial services online.

Will people really buy that sort of policy without a face-to-face meeting?

We believe they will if the environments are designed correctly. One example is Direct Line. The largest UK auto insurer is Direct Line and they do it in phone calls that average three minutes. I'm not saying everyone will do it but if only a small percentage do it; it'll be a very sizeable business. Just a year ago when we asked people would you use a credit card on the Web, 96 per cent of people said no, but now you see Amazon.com taking off.

What about online investing

I think you'll see a lot of people going into investment stuff: publishers, suppliers of financial data, stockbrokers... It's not hard to put some information on stocks; newsfeeds are cheap, so is portfolio software.

That's a crowded field...

In '83, '84 when we started there were 30 companies doing finance software. We think we're well known as an impartial client with a great UI. You can build a bad UI really easily on the Web, easier than ever!. Also, having lots of financial services together is a plus rather than being seen as a vested interest.

Can you sell your software over the Web?

CD-ROM is by far the most popular, 75 per cent of our sales. Try to download the contents of a CD-ROM. We're getting a lot of orders on the Web site - we're selling but not delivering. Stuff that works on packaged software... I don't see that migrating.

You distributed Java-based tax software over the Web in the US

That's more of an experiment. We think that over time we can put all that tax information on the Internet but the Net's so damned slow.

What about the future?

We've got a lot of things to work on. 30 per cent of UK businesses have PCs and accounting software penetration remains low. Similarly we have opportunities in tax with self-assessment and in personal finance. And as we can add Internet stuff to let you do stuff online that's going to create a new set of customers. We're in a new benefit realm.