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Do you remember the first time? A Sibos virgin tells all

When was your first Sibos? It’s one those perennial questions for veterans of the international fintech circuit.

Swift’s first international banking and operations seminar took place in 1978, attracting 300 participants to Brussels. When the doors open for Sibos 2008 in Vienna, some 70000 visitors are expected to attend.

As it happens, my first Sibos was 20 years ago, when the Swift roadshow last visited Vienna. Back then the big topic of debate centred around Swift’s continued failure to deliver Swift II, the $40 million X.25 network that was to replace the original creaking platform. Built to cope with 300,000 messages a day, Swift I had been progressively patched up, but was fast approaching its outer limits with a capacity peak of 1.27 million messages.

Compare this with Swift’s most recent peak in January this year of over 16.5 million messages a day. Of course, back in 1988, Swift traffic was restricted to interbank payments messaging. This year’s peak owes much to the contribution of the securities industry, which contributed 7.9 million messages to the daily total.

While the Swift II debate took centre stages at Sibos ’88, other issues also loomed large, including dark plans by the executive committee to allow corporates and securities markets participants access to the network.

As it turned out, the securities industry had to wait the best part of a decade before finally taking its place at the top table, and the corporate access proposal was considered so combustible it was placed in deep freeze until only just recently.

Much has changed since Sibos last pitched its tents in Vienna all those years ago. Life outside the Sibos village has been comprehensively reshaped by rapid advances in technology and telecommunications.

Thanks to its co-operative status and the strength of its franchise, Swift has been largely insulated from the competitive rigours imposed by the technology revolution. Sure, the tent has gotten bigger, but rather than being a source of competitive advantage this could ultimately prove its biggest weakness, further slowing Swift’s ability to respond to events in the world beyond La Hulpe. Perhaps the time has come to dust off those plans for an IPO, a prospect that was quietly canvassed during the dot.com boom days.

Why an I blogging about this now? Because registration for Sibos 2008 opened yesterday. I’ll be there, and so will SibosOnline – the official online news service for the exhibition floor. 

One person who won’t be joining us at the great reunion in Vienna is Peter Drummond, the Swift executive who took most of the flak for the delays to Swift II at SIbos 88. Peter sadly passed away on Boxing Day last year.

If you chance upon me in a bar in the wee small hours in Vienna, I'll likely raise a glass in Peter's memory and ask: "So, when was your first Sibos?"

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