Citigroup Inc., which is taking a variety of approaches as it introduces its mobile banking services around the world, plans to put to work the knowledge gained abroad as it fine-tunes its U.S. offerings.
The New York company rolled out a text-message mobile service in the Philippines last month and is planning to launch one in September in Hong Kong using a browser model. Steven Kietz, the Citi executive vice president spearheading the global effort, said that the browser is emerging as the preferred method worldwide for accessing financial services with phones, as opposed to text and downloadable applications.
Citi has put a lot of effort into determining how and where to use each of three access technologies, said Mr. Kietz, who also is the chief executive of Mobile Money Ventures LLC, the mobile technology joint venture Citi and the South Korean wireless carrier SK Telecom Co. Ltd. created in March. Ultimately, the goal is to deliver services that are tweaked to appeal to each market, in terms of both the method of access and the features.
"It will always be ice cream, but there will be many different flavors," he said.
Citi is experimenting with multiple mobile banking and payment applications in this country. Mr. Kietz made several references to the growing preference in the United States for browser-based mobile banking services, though he stopped short of saying that Citi plans to offer one here to complement its downloadable application that resides on users' phones, introduced in April of last year.
He cited research from TowerGroup, the independent research firm owned by MasterCard Inc., showing that 3 million U.S. consumers are using mobile banking services offered through phone browsers, but fewer than 200,000 are using a downloadable application. (A large portion of the browser users are customers of Bank of America Corp., which has said that more than a million customers are using its browser-based service.)
"The market is giving us feedback," about consumers' usage habits, Mr. Kietz said, and clear support for the browser model is "defining mobile banking in the U.S. in the near term."
Other developed countries with advanced wireless networks - such as Australia, Singapore, Japan, and Korea - are likely to be better candidates for browser-based services, while nations in the developing world - such as India, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia - are likely to be better prospects for text banking.
In Japan, more people go on the Internet from mobile devices than from computers, Mr. Kietz said.
"The common wisdom is that what is happening in Japan today is going to be happening in the developed world two years from now," he said. "There are going to be more, cool phones available, and use of the mobile browser is going to increase substantially."
Citi's global mobile rollout shows a diversity of approaches, and Mr. Kietz said the strategy reflects the varied markets that it serves. Mobile Money Ventures announced last month that Citibank Hong Kong would be the first customer for its mobile service, using a browser to offer banking software that will run on Citi's servers.
By contrast, when Citi introduced mobile banking in the Philippines, it focused on text messages because the island nation is often described as the "text capital of the world," he said. "Around the world, it's going to be based on what kind of phones people have and how they use them."
The features of the two systems are also quite different. The Hong Kong mobile service will offer investment news, stock quotes, and trading, in addition to retail banking services such as money transfers, online bill payment, and the ability to open and renew time deposits in local and foreign currencies.
Hong Kong is a sophisticated market with a concentration of powerful, Internet-ready phones, he said. Citi is working with Apple Inc. to make its service available there on its popular iPhone.
But the service for the Philippines is geared toward more basic transactions, and especially for credit cards, Mr. Kietz said. After registering by phone, customers can use text messages to do things like order food and flowers, reload prepaid phones for themselves and others, and pay bills that are charged to their cards.
The average Filipino sends 600 text messages a month, compared with less than 50 by the average American, he said. "A text system there is exactly the right system."
Citi plans to introduce mobile services in additional countries in the next 18 months, he said, though he would not provide details.
Analysts credited Citi for the flexibility of its strategy and predicted that banking companies ultimately would have to pursue a multipronged approach to mobile services, involving not only downloadable applications and browsers but also text messaging.
"We're seeing different banks leading with different things first," said Bob Egan, the director of TowerGroup's emerging technologies practice. "Banks will be successful in this market only if they support all three modalities."
He noted that Wachovia Corp. offers both a browser-based and a downloadable application, Wells Fargo & Co. is experimenting with browsers and text messages, and USAA Federal Savings Bank offers all three to its far-flung, mostly military members. "National banks are compelled to roll out a staged solution to reach the largest audience at the lowest cost."
Bruce Cundiff, a research analyst at Javelin Strategy and Research, praised Citi's efforts to develop specific services for different markets. "You can't put all your eggs in one basket," he said. "We're at different points in wireless evolution in different markets."
Part of the issue is the sophistication of handsets, but there are also cultural factors, and Citi, with its worldwide reach, must deal with a set of considerations few other banking companies face, he said.
With the adoption of mobile technology exploding around the world, bankers have an opportunity to stake a claim for new customers, he said. "It is potentially the next great way to make inroads with the consumer population."
Mr. Egan of TowerGroup said U.S. banking companies are recognizing the opportunity; nearly 300 already offer mobile banking in some form, and probably hundreds more have it in the pipeline.
In the United States, bankers have to contend with what he called the "telco blockade" - the reluctance by wireless carriers to let customers load software on to their devices without the carriers' approval.
The iPhone and other advanced devices are beginning to change that, but they still require consumers to handle their own tech support, Mr. Egan said. The last time he downloaded a banking application, using a Windows Mobile phone, the software showed up four menu layers down, under the "games" menu.
Richard K. Crone, the founder of Crone Consulting LLC, said Citi's joint venture offers the company a chance to change the nature of that arrangement.
"Here we've had start-ups and intermediaries buffering the banks from dealing directly with the wireless carriers," Mr. Crone said. "Now you have a major bank working closely with a wireless carrier."
The joint venture provides Citi with a chance to "monetize the channel" and make money for both itself and SK Telecom, he said. "This could benefit financial institutions across the board, if this Mobile Money Ventures is indeed committed to making it available."