Banks may not exist a few years from now. As Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, said: the world needs banking but it does not need banks. Consider this scenario, already being tested in Finland. A customer pushes a trolley up to the robot till in a supermarket. The till uses a remote sensor to tot up the baked beans, chocolate and instant noodles and sends the bill to the buyer's mobile telephone. The shopper selects on-screen whether to pay by credit card, debit card or electronic cash, all of which is stored on the chip in the phone.
This would change everyone's life: no wallets, no loose change, and, most importantly, no bank brand name. The phone is replacing the plastic card, and the bank's name is nowhere to be seen. There would still be a company - perhaps one of today's banks - running the systems behind the phone, but customers would only need to deal with Vodafone, France Telecom or whoever.
The banks themselves are certainly worried about destruction and their concern is focussed on the telecoms companies, whose mobile phone Sim cards are possible replacements for credit cards and cash.
The concern banks have is a reasonable one. People place more trust in big brand names such as retailers than in their bank. Disney recently topped a poll as the brand with which consumers would most like to leave their money. As technology makes it easier and easier for non-banks to enter the business, the banks must ask: what makes them special?
They probably have enough features to allow them to survive in some form. Regulators insist, for example, that no one but a bank may take deposits. Banks also have a near-monopoly on payment systems, but this is starting to break down.
What banks really want to know is whether people will choose to bank with a traditional brand, or whether the bank will be relegated to providing systems for supermarkets, television channels or airlines.
No one is sure, but banks fear the worst and are trying to use the internet to expand into offering new services. MeritaNordbanken in Finland runs its own virtual shopping mall, a business Egg also expects will provide a big chunk of its profits. Lloyds TSB is hoping to enter the "portal" business, competing with online giants such as Yahoo!. Spanish bank BBVA, which part-owns First-e, wants to sell everything from groceries to books.
So banks might fulfil their own worst fears. In future there will be no banks because banks could become retailers.