Most businesses would love to have the Network Effect that have made companies like eBay wildly successful. Simply put, the more users use something the more value that is created, which leads to more users wanting to use it.
We recently were at SAP's Sapphire user conference in Orlando and heard a lot of discussion about a network that was going to allow billers and payees to seamlessly deliver bills electronically. This is not a new concept.
A number of banks banded together back in the 90's to create a consortium call Integrion. The banks weren't thrilled that CheckFree and Intuit had a stranglehold on the bill payment market so decided to put a bunch of money in a pot and build a payment network. Ultimately I don't think a single payment was made through Integrion when they folded up shop.
Apparently the lessons learned from this endeavor were soon forgotten and the banks decide to tee it up again. They threw some more money in a pot and formed Spectrum. This time with even loftier goals. Not only did they want to rout all payments through their network, they were going to manage all bill delivery as well. This network met a similar fate of not processing a bill or payment before it was quietly put to rest.
Both of these networks met a similar fate because they didn't follow what in hindsight seems to be blindingly obvious. There needs to be a value proposition for all participants in the network or it just won't work. The reason eBay is successful is because they offer tremendous value to both the buyer and the seller. The ATM network is even a better example and the banks certainly get some credit here. Banks avoid paying tellers to handle withdrawals and consumers get the convenience of 24x7 access and avoiding long lines.
Spectrum and Integrion failed because they didn't make their networks financially compelling for billers to rout their bills through. They were good concepts and certainly there was enough friction to make this interesting, but imposing a tariff that exceeds the value is a sure fire recipe for failure.
Ultimately someone will figure out a working bill presentment and payment network that will be compelling for all participants - banks, billers, and consumers - but it's a hard problem. Billers don't have the necessary IT infrastructure, consumers have ingrained bill payment rituals that are hard to change, and banks move slowly - and that's why it hasn't happened yet. Or maybe I'm wrong.