Citigroup, MS join in financial .Net services deal

Financial services company Citigroup and Microsoft have partnered in a deal that will bring Citigroup's online credit card services together with Microsoft's .Net Web technologies to make it easier for customers to buy goods on the Web or keep track of a Citi Cards credit card account.

The deal, announced yesterday, will give Citi Cards customers easier access to their accounts through the Microsoft Passport authentication and single sign-in service. Although Passport allows for an automatic log-in for users, customers would still have to type in their Citigroup passwords before gaining access to personal information or making financial transactions.

Citi Cards is the largest provider of credit cards in the U.S., with more than 94 million accounts, according to the company.

Under the agreement, Citi Cards customers can also receive frequent alerts about their credit card accounts on any device that can receive an e-mail using Microsoft's .Net Alerts, an instant messaging-based notification service. Customers can now receive similar proprietary alerts from Citi Cards, but the frequency options are limited.

Under .Net, customers will be able to check balance information, billing dates, payments received or other details about their accounts more frequently.

For New York-based Citigroup, the deal means easier and improved access to information and online purchasing for its customers -- and the potential for gaining new customers through Microsoft's reach into consumer markets, according to Alan Young, executive director of technology at e-Citi, the company's e-commerce branch.

"People like to keep in touch with their finances," he said.

When the system first begins operation by year's end, only Citigroup's Citi Cards customers will be able to use the .Net Alerts and Passport services. Other Citigroup divisions, including Diners Club International and Banamex, will be able to use the technologies later.

While Citi Cards customers will be able to use Passport technologies to access their accounts more swiftly, the account information will not be sent elsewhere, Young said. "No data will go back into the Passport system," he said. "That all remains with Citigroup."

Also under the agreement, Citigroup will become a preferred payments provider for Microsoft. "The two companies are going to look for the best opportunities to make offers" to customers, said Adam Sohn, product manager for Microsoft's .Net platform strategy.

Presently, MSN has a variety of ways for customers to pay for online purchases, including credit cards and Passport Express accounts using stored credit card information, Sohn said. Those other payment options will remain. But the new possibilities relying on Passport, .Net and Citigroup combined will add new and improved options for shoppers, he said.

"Today we're not quite as focused and coordinated," he said. "Being with Citigroup will make us more focused."

Analyst Avivah Litan at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. said that while the benefits to the two companies are apparent, the benefits to consumers are less clear.

"Part of Microsoft's overall grand scheme is to be the gatekeeper of the Internet," she said. "Partnering with Citigroup gives them a feather in their cap."

But consumers shopping online still have to type passwords to get into their Citi Card accounts, making the promise of single sign-on moot, she said. "I don't think it gives consumers anything more," Litan said. "The part for consumers is yet to be seen."

Microsoft is leveraging one of its key strengths in its huge audience of consumers, she said, and Citigroup is going along because it will help them. For consumers, having a free Passport account is not necessarily something they want, according to Gartner's research, but is seen as something they must sign up for to use certain services online, she said.

"Really what this is is the end of the Wild West on the Internet," Litan said. "Our moves are going to be more regulated through gatekeepers like Passport. It's just not as free and easy as it used to be. It's unfortunate in a way."

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