Will Siri Boost Bank-Led Voice Payments?

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Come this fall, Apple will begin to allow third-party apps to access several of its internal capabilities, most notably Siri's application program interface.

This means iPhone users will be able to ask the talking digital assistant to order an Uber car, check movie times on Fandango and initiate payments via the German neobank Number26. But will banks, which often take a wait-and-see approach to innovation for payments and other financial services, be early adopters?

While some banks, such as U.S. Bank, have experimented with tying voice commands to payments for years, most have stayed on the sidelines. That may be a mistake given Apple's plans, since consumers judge a bank's digital experience not against what another bank offers, but against all their other online and mobile interactions.

"If you miss a critical feature on launch day, you're going to be playing catch-up and fighting App Store reviews asking for that functionality," said Sara Taylor Demos, senior digital strategist at Solstice Mobile, a digital consulting firm that works with several large financial services companies. Some of those bank clients are aiming to let customers connect via Siri at the launch day, she said. That date, which Apple hasn't yet set, is typically in late September.

"Our banking clients find value in being first-to-market with new iOS features, and it's twofold: customer experience for retention and media buzz driving acquisitions," Taylor Demos said. "There is value in being perceived as an innovative company."

The process moves quickly — on Monday, Solstice met with banking clients to prioritize the new features of iOS10 that Apple announced that afternoon at its Worldwide Developers Conference.

"Launching on Day One takes precision and investment," Taylor Demos said.

The best proxy for what to expect with new features is Touch ID, the biometric feature that Apple opened up to third parties in 2014 and that underpins Apple Pay's security and has become a staple for mobile payments. Financial services firms like American Express, Discover Financial Services and BBVA's Simple were among the first to allow their customers to log in to their mobile apps via thumbprint. Banks like JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America were slower to market, both releasing the feature well into 2015.

Simple, which has relied on PayPal's Braintree unit to tie mobile banking to mobile payments, says its early adoption of Touch ID was motivated by security, not by a desire to be first.

"It was never about being the first to market for bragging rights, it was about seizing the opportunity to make our customer experience even smoother and safer," said Amy Dunn, a spokeswoman for the BBVA unit. She later added, "Being first-to-market with modern technology can't be the only thing — it has to be coupled with user experience and customer service."

Similarly, Wells Fargo says its interest has been piqued by the potential use of Siri, but it would not disclose a timetable for adopting it.

"For years we've experimented with alternative forms of data input, including voice, and are excited about tools like Apple's Siri and Amazon Echo," said Miranda Hill, manager of Wells Fargo's Digital Innovation Lab. "At this time, we don't have exact release dates to announce, but we look forward to continuing to discover how voice technology might make banking simpler and more convenient."

While customers' expectations of new features might be growing, voice capabilities are an area where many banks are likely to step carefully and methodically.

"There is not the immediately clear benefit with voice as there was Touch ID. It is sexy, for sure, but will consumers really be interested?" asked Emmett Higdon, director of mobile for Javelin Strategy & Research. "I think there will still be a lot of 'wait and see.' "

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