Wrangling banks' security architecture to allow transactions anywhere

If only bank websites were as simple and easy to use as an iPhone app.Believe it or not, that wish isn't far from fruition.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

If only bank websites were as simple and easy to use as an iPhone app.

Believe it or not, that wish isn't far from fruition.

Earlier this year, banking provider Waterfield Technologies and application infrastructure guru WorkLight teamed up to offer secure, widget-based banking solutions for financial institutions and their customers.

Combining the WorkLight Application Platform with Waterfield's financial know-how, the companies are enabling consumer banking -- such as tracking account balances, transferring funds, paying bills and more -- in the Windows Vista Sidebar, Mac OS X Dashboard, Facebook, iGoogle, Twitter, Apple iPhone and other channels.

I sat down to chat with John Marino, the president of Tulsa, Okla.-based Waterfield Technologies, about how his company plans to wrangle financial institutions' security architecture to make secure banking possible from almost anywhere.

What banking hurdles do banks and their customers face today?

Marino: We see a real need in the marketplace. A few big banks in this space [dominate the market] -- if you're lucky, one of them isn't in trouble. We think other banks can compete with those banks' big budgets in terms of technology. We want to empower super-regional institutions to push the transaction and the detail data to where their customers are living: the desktop, the widgets, iGoogle, myYahoo, etc. And you'll end up finding a more loyal customer.

As part of our collective, we're mainly selling to commercial institutions. Are we like [financial aggregation site] Mint? No. Instead, we go to Mint or Quicken and look at their iPhone app and see how we can expand it. You ask people what their iGoogle strategy is, and you get blank stares. That's why we're here. You write one application and it deploys to multiple interfaces. The market changes so quickly -- whatever's the next Twitter -- and obviously we need to take time to make interfaces for that. We're taking important information and making it available. Security is the differentiator.

So how do you make the freedom of banking anywhere secure?

Marino: Weather, stock tickers, RSS feeds -- that's not that secure. But it doesn't have to be. If somebody hacks that widget, nothing important is lost. With banking information, that's where security is important. We think the value we're providing is by building the security infrastructure -- authentication and encryption and all that.

Fear of the unknown -- we can help people bridge the gap. Let's spend time with your security architect. We're out there to make banking less sterile. There's a value to having your bank on your desktop, anytime. You can do better than a one-line, cross-sell at the bottom of your monthly statement.

How have vendors responded to this technology?

Marino: We're getting significant interest. Retailers are very interested: J. Crew, Target, Best Buy. My wife is a J.Crew addict; the last thing I would want is my wife to have a J.Crew widget on her desktop, but that's the first thing J.Crew wants. There's cross-value appeal to it.

If we can lay it out there that there's serious security built into this, we're going to start seeing wider adoption. We've got other applications that are just B2B -- suppliers informing their distribution centers in real-time. You put a simple little gadget on a desktop that does a couple little simple things -- that's going to be the key. For example, Worklight's Fidelity widget (see image above) provides portfolio information.

How does technology like this impact the average consumer?

Marino: As an avid consumer, there are a few places I'll take e-mails from, right? A few places I'm interested in, that I'm shopping on a regular basis. Home Depot, for example. Then you're able to build a business case. For my wife, I'm only sending her sizes 0 to 4 that are in her color. Stuff like that. The same kind of software capability that takes information from banks can mine marketing data from a retailer.

You've only got one big shot, but e-mail has sort of reduced that. You're taking it to where they live. The fact is, there is no click-through rate. We're building interactive widgets that can sit anywhere -- you enter your information in a banner ad and the transaction is secure. There are no clicks.

Is this a retention play for merchants, or an acquisition play? Everybody gets into the acquisition story, but...how about instead of putting a banner, you get a form in there. We are sending data back and forth. We can actually pull a credit report and finish a transaction without you leaving the website. We're reducing hoops.

You mentioned banner ads. How do you convince a user that it's OK to input valuable information -- such as a bank account number -- into a banner ad?

Marino: Yeah, that's something we have to work on -- how to make it look authentic and secure. I don't know if it's an overcome-it-tomorrow solution. The technology's out there to do it today. So we want to be hand-in-hand with the marketers.

We can take an interactive widget and put it into Facebook, pulling profile information as it sits in a corner like all the other junk on Facebook. We're starting to see information that's saying, hey maybe providing sensitive data to an interactive widget is not for the 45-year-old with a 900 credit score, but maybe it's appropriate for a first-time credit application candidate that isn't so leery of putting in their information. It's about posturing and positioning for the right demographic.

In terms of banking, everybody's hungry for deposits, but there's fundamental [consumer] distrust for all the big guys right now. Regional banks are asking how to take advantage of the landscape -- how do we get out there and look like we're in the 21st century? These aren't expensive solutions. The barriers for entry are lower than when we first set up websites in the '90s. For credit unions, we're looking at a portal solution.

We can do all kinds of transactions from these widgets, absolutely. Transfers, move money...we don't want to make a convoluted widget.

Why can't companies just implement their own IT department? What does your solution offer?

Marino: WorkLight makes the software, and we are tying the interfaces to the bank. Companies can do it themselves with a lot of IT guys, but we add value to WorkLight's platform because we know the interfaces of these banks. We're in the bank sector. We live and breathe banks. We can sell the bank story to banks to make it relevant.

As proof, we're building solutions for our sister companies, Waterfield Financial and Waterfield Holding Companies. Look at AARPSavings.com -- we're effectively the technology backbone for that.

When will we see this come to fruition?

Marino: Later this year and certainly in the next. We're talking to enough folks that have good answers.

We chose WorkLight because you end up building one application and deploying it into multiple situations. The UI is not rocket science. Getting the data out of the banks is where there's value. We partner with one of the larger bank processors out there. There are lots of different ways to pull data; everyone's got different opinions on security architecture. If you understand how it works, you're able to quickly cut through barriers.

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