One to watch: bank apps

There isn't much you can't do with an iPhone these days. Need to toss a coin? There's an app for that. Want to find out listings for your local cinema? Again, there's an app for that. But how about banking?

According to Neilsen Data, 27% of UK mobile phone users have a smartphone. While only 7% of smartphone users own an Apple iPhone, it's a fast moving area of technology - in the last quarter of 2010, Apple sold over 14 million devices.

So it comes as no surprise that banks are starting to tap into this growing market.

In January, online bank First Direct launched the very first 'transactional' banking app, allowing iPhone users to check balances, view the last 20 account transactions and transfer money between both their own and third-party accounts. In the first two weeks of its launch it had over 100,000 downloads.

Still, in comparison with the rest of the world, UK banks have lagged behind in their relationship with technology. Back in 2008, Bank of America launched its iPhone app, allowing American customers to manage their money on the move.

Catching up

While UK banks NatWest and RBS launched their banking apps in November 2009, they only allow customers to view their balance and past transactions rather than actually transfer money, although they are working on a transactional app. 

So when are the other banks going to catch up? Risha Parmar, spokesperson from Lloyds Banking Group, says: "It's something we're looking into". Meanwhile Jonathan Akerman, spokesperson for Santander, says the provider has "technology in development at the moment".

Barclays, on the other hand, has a dedicated mobile banking service launched in the spring of 2009. While it's not specifically an app, it displays balances and customers are able to make payments to a third party, much in the same way as the First Direct app.

This is evidently an area UK banks are somewhat reluctant to dip their toes into.

Read: How phone apps can save you money

James Holland, editor of technology website, believes it's down to people's perception of how safe mobile banking is. "Mobile commerce has taken much longer than many experts expected to catch on, but the success of apps, rather than mobile browsing, has kick-started a gold rush.

"Most major online retailers now boast apps with purchasing powers. It's never been easier to spend money, but there still remains an uneasiness around mobile banking. It raises questions about security, although in reality it's no riskier than using any of those other apps, which encrypt your details whenever you hit the 'buy' button," he adds.

It's not only current account providers that have shown an interest in developing smartphone apps. Investment company Fidelity has also entered the fray, allowing customers to search the range of funds, see past performance and create watch lists.

Meanwhile, American Express has launched a fully-functional credit card app. Amex customers can pay their bill, check balances and see recent credit card transactions.

So what's the outlook for 2011? Will UK banks finally establish a presence in the smartphone market? Holland believes so. "There's a tidal wave of mobile banking apps around the corner, but financial institutions need to educate the public on mobile security to avoid an embarrassing flop," he says.

Are your financial details safe?

In reality, mobile banking isn't any less safe than using a desktop computer, but there are a few common-sense steps you can take to prevent fraud.
Use a passcode on your handset and switch on the option to wipe the phone's data after a number of unsuccessful attempts to unlock it. Some providers also offer the option to remotely wipe data from your lost or stolen mobile.

"However, if you haven't protected your phone, there's no reason to worry that your banking details would fall into the wrong hands," says Holland.

"Mobile banking apps employ exactly the same security measures as those you'd access through a regular computer. You'll need a password each time, and your data shouldn't be saved on the phone at all, so it's perfectly safe."

Your Comments

Well, it looks like it's not banks who try to keep up but independent companies. Have a look at the recent Android apps which supports most of the UK banks (e.g. NatWest, RBS, HSBC, etc. - they all come from independent sources.