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How tech is changing banks

Deposit checks with your iPhone camera? Banks as cyber cafes? Tech makes banking fun

August 8, 2009 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - It wasn't long ago that bank customers judged the quality of their local financial institutions by the sturdiness of their columns and vault doors. That idea is a throwback to an era when money was physical, and so was security.

Now, money is just data. And banks -- especially small banks -- are evolving rapidly to reflect that new reality.

No, I'm not talking about garden-variety mobile banking applications. Simple apps that let you check bank balances, transfer money and find branch locations already feel old and stale. I'm talking about trends that free you from ever having to visit bank branch offices again -- and trends that make you want to visit.

Breaking the branch habit

The only remaining reason for many of us to visit bank branch offices, wait in line and interact with a teller is to deposit checks. That's about to change.

The United Services Automobile Association, a financial services company for members of the U.S. military and veterans, plans to launch a free iPhone app that lets you deposit checks via your iPhone camera. The service will be called USAA Deposit@Mobile. To make a deposit, you use the app to log onto your account, enter the amount of the check, snap a picture of the front and back of the check, then touch the "Send" button. The bank sends a confirmation. Here's a video demo. This is such a compelling service that I'm thinking about joining the Army to qualify.

Of course, you can always find an ATM and deposit your checks in there. But that can give you a creepy feeling. How do you know the bank won't later tell you they never got your check?

Bank of America has installed about 12,800 new ATMs that print receipts that show scans of the checks you deposit. This is nice, because it gives customers proof that checks were in fact deposited.

Soon, you won't need checks at all. You'll be able to use your cell phone as a debit card, and also to receive money from other people's cell phones (it's best to get their permission first). A huge number of companies are working on technology and systems to offer this service. Even Nokia wants to get in on the mobile money racket. The company has registered the trademark "Nokia Money." They intend to launch a service, apparently, that lets you transfer money from your cell phone to either another cell phone or to a store checkout counter. In March, Nokia invested $70 million in a company called Obopay, which enables secure mobile electronic money transfers.



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