It's no secret that banks that fail to embrace online and mobile distribution platforms aren't long for this world. "[T]here is a broad consensus within the banking industry that digital channels are a crucial way forward," observed a recent report on mobile banking by financial services consulting company Celent.

What's less obvious, however, is the answer to the question of who is winning the mobile race.

The cutting edge of consumer banking
At this year's Barclays Global Financial Services Conference, the topic of mobile banking was at the forefront of nearly every major bank executive's presentation. The chief financial officer of Wells Fargo (WFC 0.92%) Timothy Sloan claimed that "over 22 million customers actively bank with us online and over 10 million customers actively bank with us via mobile, which is our fastest growing channel."

Two days later, Bank of America's (BAC 0.92%) CFO Bruce Thompson boasted that "we have 13.2 million mobile users. And adoption of this channel continues to move very rapidly, as 4% of all checks in the second quarter of 2013, just under 12 million checks, were deposited using Mobile Check Deposit, which we just launched during the second quarter of 2012."

Indeed, the only company to beat around the bush on the topic was KeyCorp (KEY -0.63%) -- though, for somewhat understandable reasons, as it's representative, CFO Donald Kimble, had only been in the position for three months by the time of the conference.

But boasting at a conference is one thing -- and trust me, there's a lot of boasting that goes on at one of these gatherings. Cold, hard facts are another.

A winner is emerging
It's in this regard that Bank of America seems to be taking the lead. "When Celent first published its analysis of mobile banking apps from the top banks in the U.S., Bank of America was just average, punching below its weight class," the aforementioned report noted. "Since then, the bank has made an enormous amount of progress, transforming into one of the premier offerings in this report."

In the fourth quarter of 2010, Bank of America's mobile platform had 5.1 million users. Fast-forward two and a half years, and it has well over twice that amount, or 13.2 million.

A real turning point came in the middle of last year. "The functionality [of Bank of America's mobile application], previously barebones, was built out to include some of the more modern features in mobile at that time," write the authors of the report. "With a few additional [user interface] changes, the user experience was optimized through best-in-class navigation and a highly efficient layout."

You can see the proceeds of these improvements in the adoption rate. Of the handful of banks that provide a sufficient amount of data to gauge this, Bank of America leads the pack: 26.4% of its customers use the mobile platform -- I'm one of them and swear by it. It's followed in this regard by Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB 0.36%), with an adoption rate of 19%, Wells Fargo at 15.3%, and U.S. Bancorp (USB 0.02%) at 10.8%.

It's for these reasons Celent named Bank of America, along with U.S. Bancorp, as the banks with the "most improved apps." Falling into the second category, "apps with noticeable improvements," was Wells Fargo along with Capital One and HSBC. And the final grouping, "banks with minimal or no changes to their mobile offerings," contained Fifth Third along with seven of its peers.