Have you ever given a thought to how amazing it is that you can look at a webpage on any device? Seriously, think about it: You can log onto Gmail in Antarctica and send an email using an Android phone attached to a satlink, and I can read and reply to that email in Seattle using a Windows PC running Google Chrome connected to fiber cable buried in my backyard. Almost nothing about those two setups seems remotely similar, and yet they’re almost completely interoperable. Devices on the internet all speak the same language.
If you want to use your iPhone to check your Gmail, you just type in your username and password (although you should really be using two-factor authentication these days) and watch it start working. The same thing happens when you use something like Digit or Mint or Prism to access your bank account, right? Type in your username and password, and voila!
Except…not even close. Back when I was in banking, we always said that, if you were good friends with the other bankers, and they asked for some financial statements, you’d email over an Excel file. If you didn’t like them much, you’d email them a PDF so they’d have to type in all the numbers by hand. If you absolutely hated them, you’d print out the spreadsheet and fax it over.
But if you think that sounds hard, get this: When startups try to access your banking data, we’re basically looking at something that was printed out, scanned back in upside down, ripped in half, taped back together, chewed up by a puppy, photographed, and then faxed after being sent to a printer that was low on toner. So why is that, exactly? For one thing, there’s no common language that we use to exchange that kind of information. Ah, but some of you will say that there is a standard called OFX, or the Open Financial Exchange. If OFX were, say, a computer port, it would look something like this:
Not pretty. This was a great way to connect printers to computers twenty years ago–right about when OFX was introduced.