March 1, 2005

Quasar Accounting finds move to open source adds up

Author: Tina Gasperson

Last month Linux Canada released Quasar Accounting 1.4 for Linux under the terms of the GNU General Public License. Phil Tonnellier, president of Linux Canada, says it's too early to tell if the move to open source is paying off, but response has been good so far, with more than 6,000 downloads since the January 13 release.Linux Canada has been developing accounting software since 1994, and released Quasar 1.0 in May 2001. In 2002, Linux Canada began offering a "base package" of Quasar binaries free of charge to end users on a single computer in an attempt to create interest, with add-on modules available for a price. As awareness picked up, Tonnellier and Brad Pepers, Linux Canada's co-founder and lead developer of Quasar, decided that the best way to ensure widespread adoption of the accounting software was to go all out and release the source code as well. "We wanted to see Quasar used all over the world and have the pride of it being our product," Pepers says. "But we needed to figure out a way to do it and still make a living."

The company had been producing income all along by working with resellers and by providing consulting and technical support to larger customers, so Pepers and Tonnellier decided to keep a commercial licensing option available for resellers who want to be able to make customized changes and additions to the software without releasing the source code.

Pepers expects Quasar to continue to make money by selling commercial licenses, and also by providing support packages and consulting work for larger end users who don't mind if customized changes to their accounting software make it into the open source community.

Quasar had to undergo extensive and time-consuming preparation before the company could release it under the terms of the GPL. For instance, the software had several dependencies to third-party proprietary products that had to be eliminated and replaced with GPL-compatible code. "We were using SQLAPI++, which is a nice commercial product giving a C++ interface to many databases on Linux and Windows," Pepers says. "At first we tried to use the SQL interface that had just been added to Qt, but it was too new and raw, and missing too many things that we needed at the time. We wasted some time trying to make that work."

Finally, Pepers decided to just rewrite the database interface from scratch, a job he says seemed straightforward until he got in the middle of it. "In the end," he says, "the interface is working well."

On the marketing side, the job was to try and find a model that would encourage community-building. Linux Canada hosts a collection of mailing lists where developers can provide feedback and submit changes to the code, and users can come to get support for installation and setup issues. Pepers feels he's struck a good balance between commercialism and open source. "It seems most people are building and using Quasar fairly easily," he says. "I'm looking forward to using the feedback we've received so far to make the next release better."

Developer input on the Quasar mailing lists has provided valuable information to help Linux Canada with important details, such as streamlining the installation process and improving the international customization (l18N) aspects of Quasar. For example, "a user in Norway has sent an example import he was using," says Pepers. "He was having problems with non-English characters, and working with him we were able to use his data to test character set encodings and their interaction in Quasar between Qt, Tcl, and the supported databases."

One of the challenges that Quasar has faced is the lack of a payroll module. Pepers says that payroll is such a country-specific process that it hasn't been a top priority for developers to tackle, but users can perform payroll functions separately and plug in numbers to Quasar manually. He'd like to write an import process for Quasar, which would allow users to pull data down from popular accounting packages that do include payroll modules.

Despite having no payroll capabilities, Pepers believes Quasar can compete effectively with popular Windows accounting software package QuickBooks. "Quasar has a retail slant to it that QuickBooks is just getting into with its point-of-sale package -- though you'll be at well over $1,000 for that software. I feel we have more powerful features in inventory control and sales tracking, and we can handle some pretty advanced issues that come up with retail.

"I think Quasar, with other software like OpenOffice, would make an absolutely ideal package to run most small businesses."

The source code, along with pre-compiled binaries, is available for download. The basic version of the Quasar accounting package is available under a commercial license for $149 per server. The point-of-sale version costs $399, and a CD-ROM that includes the GPL version of the software, all documentation, and the source code is available for $89. Support packages range in price from $300 to $4,000 per year.


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