The benefits of owning a smartphone are many: Handling work issues when you're not in the office, staying connected with friends and family, settling that late-night bet about John Travolta. But for millions of Canadians, smartphones are becoming their go-to device for paying bills and checking bank account balances.
The move toward mobile banking parallels the "big embrace" that Canadians have given to smartphones, says Kaan Yigit, president of Solutions Research Group.
Five years ago, the percentage of the population using a smartphone was in the single digits. "Then the iPhone changed all that," Mr. Yigit says.
"If you look at the numbers now, it's eye-popping. We're at over 10 million smartphone users in Canada, and roughly about 3.5 million banking app users in Canada that three years ago didn't exist."
Canadians are embracing mobile banking because they have "acute time poverty," he says. "That's what drives so many decisions."
The introduction of online banking 16 years ago paved the way for mobile banking, Mr. Yigit says. At that time people had big questions about security. But as people have become comfortable with that method, they've been more willing to accept mobile banking.
"I think people understand that a mobile app is like online banking, except it's in your hand and it's extremely convenient to transfer money, to pay bills," he said. "You don't have to sit in front of a computer at night and plan it out. You're waiting for your sandwich at the local shop and you say, 'I forgot to pay my Visa bill.' Click click."
As well, people are responding to the fact that mobile apps are generally easy to use, maybe even more so than online banking, Mr. Yigit says.
"On your [computer]screen you have a million different choices – things on the left, on the right – whereas most mobile apps are very streamlined, to the point," he said. "It's portable, easy to use and very fast."
Sharad Ojha, head of mobile channel strategy for the Royal Bank of Canada, says mobile banking users account for about seven per cent of RBC's client base.
"Since we launched our mobile banking application in December of 2010, we have seen about 1.35 million of our clients download it," he says. "If you compare the adoption of mobile banking to any other channel, mobile is outpacing [them]by far."
An RBC study conducted at the end of 2011 found that the majority of mobile users were between the age of 18 to 40, says Mr. Ojha, with two peaks at 22-24 and 35-40.
"For the 18- to 24-year-olds, they're just starting out and mobile phones are so much part of their life, so it's just the logical fit," he says. "But then you look at clients who are 35-40, and mobile banking is just an added convenience. It makes their life more productive and more efficient."
Steve Tyers, vice-president of eChannels for CIBC, says that when the bank first launched its mobile banking app in 2010, people tested the waters, logging in to look at their bank balances. But since the end of last year they've seen a shift, he says: Five per cent of all bills paid through CIBC are through mobile apps.
Despite mobile banking's growing popularity, security issues remain a concern. In a recent ING Direct survey of 700 smartphone users, two-thirds said that security was their biggest concern about mobile banking.
Mr. Ojha says clients can be assured that RBC's online banking security guarantee also applies to its mobile banking. "If there's any fraudulent transaction on the bank account, RBC is fully 100 per cent liable for those transactions and we do a 100 per cent reimbursement," he said. (CIBC has the same policy, Mr. Tyers says.)
Mr. Yigit thinks mobile banking could supplant PC banking over time as mobile apps become more sophisticated. "The more those apps mimic basically what you can do online, the more you'll find they're going to become mainstays for people," he says.
"The number of smartphones will exceed the number of Internet households in Canada in the next six months, so it'll be seamless in our lives, and our kids will say, 'You had to log on to this big screen and do what?'"
The move toward mobile may also change who the players are in the banking game, Mr. Yigit says. While traditionally the Big Five banks in Canada had the advantage because they had the infrastructure (such as bank branches and ATMs), mobile banking creates opportunities for smaller and non-traditional players.
"All of a sudden on a mobile screen they're equal," he said.
The next phase is being able to use your smartphone to pay for purchases, with nary a plastic card in sight, Mr. Yigit says. A poll last year of 419 smartphone users by SRG found that 66 per cent of those aged 18-34 said they would be interested in using their mobile device to swipe and buy items in stores.
"That functionality is in high demand," Mr. Yigit says.
Another concern: What if a banking patron loses her phone? Will someone be able to use it for credit card fraud?
"Those issues need to be addressed obviously," Mr. Yigit says, "and once they are, you'll see any and all mobile banking apps take off even more."