The Apple iPad is being hyped as the future of computing.

Launched in April, it's the lead horse in a new generation of touch-screen tablet devices that bring a simplified point-and-touch experience to web browsing.

Enthusiasts say the iPad and other lightweight tablets — which run free or low-cost applications like those revolutionizing the smartphone industry — could be the future of banking, too.

In a recent Netbanker blog post, editor Jim Bruene said that online banking with the iPad beats a PC hands down. "The Web experience on the iPad is outstanding," he wrote. "The ability to click on a banking button on the main iPad screen and launch a perfectly sized online banking app shaves 30 to 45 seconds off the traditional browser-based approach."

For banks, the iPad and tablet computers that have been following, such as one from Dell, marry the best features of smartphones and laptops — combining portability, computing power and large screens — while improving ease of use. The iPad also offers safer web banking, since its closed operating system isn't susceptible to malware programs used to steal users' login credentials.

But mostly, experts say, the iPad offers banks a chance to capture the "cool" factor for younger, tech-savvy bank consumers — with little up-front cost.

"Should banks develop specific iPad applications?" IDC analyst Marc DeCastro wrote in a blog posting for the research firm. "The short answer is yes; it is inexpensive, it gives the financial institution publicity and perhaps will draw in some new business."

Despite the buzz, banking apps have been slow to arrive for the iPad (while plenty of third-party payment and budgeting apps have emerged). Only one U.S. bank — JPMorgan Chase & Co. — released an iPad-specific app in the first month of the device's launch, and it was only a version of its iPhone app repurposed for the iPad's 9.7-inch, high-resolution screen.

One reason for the slow start is that existing bank iPhone apps work on the iPad. In addition, the iPad's native Safari browser is suitable for web banking.

For many banks, one option for appealing to iPad users is "why not just utilize existing online banking and bill-pay applications meant for access from PCs and Macs, and focus application development on the smaller form factor devices?" DeCastro said.

But there are potential advantages unique to the iPad. As it becomes more popular (3 million devices were sold in the first 80 days), banks will come to value having a presence on the user's touch-screen menu — rather than being a bookmark on the browser. In an interview with Bank Technology News, JPMorgan Chase Executive Vice President Michael Cleary hinted that the next version of the iPad app could utilize a multiple-window functionality not available to the iPhone.

ING Direct released a version of its smartphone app to Canadian users that takes advantage of the iPad's size by being usable in portrait or landscape mode.

U.S. Bancorp has announced plans for an iPad-specific app. It could be the start of a flood of banks joining the fray.

Serge van Dam, head of marketing for the global mobile banking services developer M-Com, said his company has received "a number of calls from banks" in the U.S. asking about how iPad and tablet computing might be employed by their customers.

Karen Epper Hoffman, a former American Banker technology reporter, is a freelance writer in Poulsbo, Wash.

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