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Money: A new calling for the humble handset

On-line services don't only come over the net, writes Stephen Pritchard - try a screenphone
THE HUMBLE telephone is the one piece of communications technology found in almost every household. Phone lines can do far more than carry conversations: the phone has become an important sales tool and a way to access services such as ticket reservations, weather information or home banking.

The rise of the internet has not stopped companies from developing phone- based services. The telephone itself is becoming more sophisticated and powerful, providing a base for on-line services without the complexity and expense of the net. Phones can have screens displaying text and graphics, infra-red keyboards and smart card readers, yet still cost just a few hundred pounds.

This week Barclays Bank announced a new screenphone-based banking and information service. Customers will use a special handset, which Barclays plans to sell for pounds 99, to access their current account details, view a mini-statement and search for a recent transaction. If they have a Barclaycard, they can use the phone to check their account.

Most of the information is displayed on a small pager-like screen built in to the telephone. This doubles as the interface for the banking service and a smart telephone directory. Press the on-screen help button and the phone gives the option of calling Barclays' customer helpline. The phone will also call up the bank for some transactions, such as arranging an overdraft or paying a bill, which the screenphone does not yet support electronically.

Barclays is marketing the screenphone on convenience, says Gordon Rankin, managing director of personal banking. Users will be people who want something simpler than PC banking - which Barclays already offers - but who are still prepared to buy the special phone and pay the service charge of pounds 5 a month.

Compared with internet banking services, such as those from Nationwide or the Co-op, Barclays' screenphone lacks features and flexibility. But there are some significant advantages. The screenphone is quick. Even with a fast computer it can take several minutes to switch the machine on, a few more to load web browser software or a banking package, and more still to connect to the internet, pass through security and carry out a transaction. The screenphone does less, but does it with just one or two button presses.

Barclays expects to add more functions to its screenphone, which is still a pilot project at the moment. As well as banking, the system has several other features, including shopping for CDs or wine, travel money and insurance, a cinema locator service and a pre-recorded weather service from the Met Office.

As technologies develop, screenphones will come closer to being low-cost internet access devices. The phone Barclays is using, made by Nortel, is modular. Its monochrome screen can be swapped for a colour unit, a card reader or, potentially, a miniature computer.

Banks such as Barclays will use the internet's cheap and universal technologies to deliver their electronic services. Web phones, which combine a small computer, internet software, a screen and a telephone in one unit, are already on the market in America.

Members of the public need not even know they are connecting over the net. This is important for banks as they begin to offer electronic services to the majority of their customers who do not own a PC.