Tech Talk: Why are our banks’ online services rubbish?

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AS if there weren’t already enough reasons to dislike banks, here’s one more: their online services are, by and large, terrible.

In the US, it is possible to have your bank statements downloaded automatically into a desktop program which analyses your spending and upcoming budget.

You can also view all your accounts at a glance, even if they’re held at different banks. Here, not only can you not do any of that, but the banks have fought tooth and nail against you ever being able to.

In North America, Mint.com is the gold standard in online money management, letting you view your accounts on your PC or phone, and sending you reminders when your next bill is due. It’s funded indirectly by the banks, who pay it commission for introducing new clients. But there is no likelihood of it spreading here any time soon. Our own banks prefer “walled garden” internet services, where they can show you your balance, flog you ISAs, and not much else.

So which are the best banks today for managing your money online? Well, none of them are especially well reviewed by their customers, but the HSBC subsidiary First Direct, with no branches of its own and conducting all its business on the web and the phone, ranks among the best of a mediocre bunch. Current account holders can download an iPhone app and access their accounts on a mobile-friendly website. It’s also possible to download transactions into personal finance programs like Quicken and Microsoft Money (neither still on sale in the UK) but it’s a manual process.

First Direct also lets you log in automatically to accounts held at different banks, storing their passwords and account numbers on your own PC so your security isn’t compromised. NatWest is another relatively switched-on bank, offering apps for iPhone, Android and Blackberry mobiles and for the the iPad. Virgin and Smile.co.uk accounts also rate relatively well with their customers, but there are few features to set either apart from the masses.

The banks are fond of claiming that their services are designed with security in mind, but there’s no reason they can’t be secure and clever at the same time. I wonder, have they ever thought of encouraging innovation by paying their staff bonuses?

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