A week or so ago, I downloaded the NatWest iPhone banking app, apparently the only banking app in the UK on iPhone at present. Why this is so I have no idea - in other countries like Australia, you're almost not a bank unless you have an iPhone app. Anyway, I downloaded the app because I'd heard rumours that you could use it to access your HSBC accounts if you had a NatWest account. This is true, actually.
I am a long-standing HSBC customer, and I don't mind admitting I'm a bit of a fan of Premiere. I love that I can move money around the world free of charge with instant settlement, and I like it that you get all these special spaces in branches. I even like the internet banking service, which, whilst its nothing that special, is perfectly functional and does everything, almost, that I need.
I am, however, at a loss to understand the complete lack of a retail mobile banking application. Not just for iPhone, but at all. What is going on HSBC?
I have a feeling i know the answer though. I'll bet that someone, somewhere, has decided that mobile is strategic, and therefore a global, multi-market solution is needed. I'd guess the whole mobile thing is so strategic to everyone that a big-bang approach seems the only way to make a splash. Never mind that you can build iPhone apps for practically nothing these days, and never mind the fact that everyone else has a mobile offering, even if its not on iPhone. I mean, even the DWP has an app these days, and we're the government.
The NatWest app, by the way, is pretty lacking in functionality, and it is based on the generic service that banks in the UK get from Monetise. They're the same people that run the Link ATM network, and apparently the app uses that transaction network to get its data. In other words, there's no integration or effort required to get the Monetise app to work for a particular bank, and is the reason that I can use my HSBC accounts in the NatWest version.
Anyway, whilst a mobile app from HSBC would be nice, what is striking to me is that the bank hasn't recognised that there is a need to get early experience in this space if you want to take the lead later. Shoving a poor application out the door - like NatWest have done - is teaching them valuable lessons about how customers like to use Mobile.
Moreover, they're building a committed and loyal base of customers from the ground up. These are early adopters who have no choice but to open an account if they want to bank on iPhone. There are only so many early adopters available in a given market, and NatWest are getting all of them. Typically, somewhere between 15% and 18% of any audience will bother trying something new - but they're the ones that will tell everyone else about their experiences. Recruitment of these people is the key to building a base.
And lets not forget that, as the only bank with an iPhone app in the UK, Apple have been shoving the app in front of everyone through their TV commercials featuring "there's an App for that".
Of course, all this is pretty incidental to the real business of retail banking if all you're doing is offering transaction histories and balance checks, which is almost all the NatWest app does.
But consider this: if all the early adopters are somewhere else, and then you decide to drop a major game-changing new feature in, who will be around to talk about it? Who's going to tell their friend and friends of friends how their experience has changed?
The point of mobile banking, really, is what the next generation of apps is going to be able to do. Contactless payments, point-of-sale loans, banking related geo-games and so on and so forth. The potential for integrating banking services into the day to day of life is the game changing play that mobile enables.
Too bad if you haven't got any customers willing to try those features though. Hurry up HSBC, if you want a shot at it.
Update 2: I was wrong about HSBC and their lack of mobile. They do have an offering for supported handsets (not iPhone, though), powered by Monetise. The link is here. However, I have to say, at this point, that I couldn't find out how to navigate to that link from any of the products I have, and furthermore, mobile doesn't come up in their search when you ask for it. Despite all that, I think I stand by most of the comments in my post.