December 16, 2004

Quickbooks: the missing link for small business Linux

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Last week I was talking with a small business IT consultant who switches clients' servers to Linux (and Samba) all day long without any problems, but finds few clients interested in moving their desktops to Linux. The reason? "QuickBooks," he said. While there are many small business accounting packages that happily run on Linux, including GnuCash, Quasar, SQL-Ledger, and AccPac, QuickBooks dominates this market. And its loyal users don't want to switch to another package even if it's just as good as -- or possibly better than -- QuickBooks.My consultant friend pointed out that OpenOffice.org Calc -- the OOo spreadsheet function -- can handle most small business bookkeeping and accounting tasks in the hands of a skilled spreadsheet user. But he also noted that most small business people are not spreadsheet experts. Not only that, those who use QuickBooks are used to the way QuickBooks does things and are reluctant to change.

In other words, it's a training issue as much as anything else. The cost of the software is negligible compared to the time and energy QuickBooks users have invested in learning the program and its quirks.

Accounting is often the most-hated and least-understood part of a small business owner's responsibilities. Once he or she finds an accounting packge that works well, and learns how to use it, he or she is reluctant to try anything new.

Converting the vendor, not the users

I used QuickBooks publisher Intuit's online media inquiry form to ask, "'When will be be able to use the words 'QuickBooks' and 'Linux' in the same sentence?"

A week later, I still had no reply.

I checked the CodeWeavers Web site to see if QuickBooks might work under Linux with their Wine-based CrossOver Office product.

All I saw was QuickBooks Pro with a "Bronze" usability rating, the lowest of the three that CodeWeavers gives. Other QuickBooks versions were shown as "not tested."

On the phone, though, CodeWeavers chief operating officer Jon Parshall drew a slightly more encouraging picture. It turns out that CodeWeavers uses QuickBooks to do its own corporate books -- on Linux, through its CrossOver Office product.

Jon said there were "some layout issues" with the program's GUI, but that "other than minor cosmetics, QuickBooks pro is pretty much functional" in CrossOver Office.

He also said, "We're hoping to forge a closer working relationship with Intuit. We have been in contact with them."

The problem is, squashing Wine/CrossOver bugs for a large application like QuickBooks is both tedious and expensive, and to make CrossOver Office run QuickBooks flawlessly would cost tens of thousands of dollars. So far, Jon says, Intuit hasn't wanted to cough up that much cash to penetrate the Linux desktop market. He raised the old "chicken and egg" cliche, but it certainly applies in this situation: the ability to run QuickBooks on Linux would help speed Linux adoption among QuickBooks's traditional small business user base, but it's not worth Intuit's time and money either to do a direct Linux port or pay for Wine customization to exploit the Linux desktop market until it's quite a bit larger than it is today.

Plus, Jon pointed out, a Wine-based "Quickbooks for Linux" would raise all sorts of support issues, and "people would call Intuit and yell at them, not at us," he said. So an Intuit-sponsored, Intuit-marketed, Wine-based "Quickbooks for Linux" would need to work well nigh flawlessly; CrossOver Office and free Wine tend to be used by Linux cognoscenti who are forgiving of small bugs that don't affect a program's functionality, but Intuit's customer base is less software-hip than CodeWeavers', and may not think "Don't sweat the small stuff" is a philosophy they should practice when dealing with software vendors.

Linux keeps marching onto those desktops

Linux desktop use keeps growing, a few machines here, a dozen there, a hundred across town, slowly and steadily. While highly-publicized big-company Linux adoptions may not directly affect QuickBooks sales, they tend to make small businesses think more about converting to Linux, and every small business that converts to Linux is one potential customer less for QuickBooks, which also faces growing competition in the Windows small business space from Microsoft itself.

The funny thing is, Microsoft's sales efforts on behalf of its Magellan product, which is essentially Microsoft Office with bookkeeping functionality added, may help tip some QuickBooks users toward Linux. If QuickBooks is "the" application that's keeping a company on Windows, and Microsoft's salespeople talk about how QuickBooks can't compete with their product or how QuickBooks isn't "all that" and can be dumped without harming a potential customer's business, why shouldn't that customer also consider other bookeeping software products -- including some of the Linux ones mentioned at the beginning of this article?

In other words, every negative word Microsoft says about QuickBooks helps open a door to consideration not only of Microsoft products but also of GnuCash, GNU/Linux, and OpenOffice.org. And when it comes to price, these three offerings beat any Windows software combination hands-down. Even better, they offer freedom from licensing headaches and possible financial ruin from software piracy accusations.

QuickBooks is not open source, nor does anyone expect Intuit to open its code base anytime soon. But keeping track of one set of software licenses, possibly on only a few of a business's computers, is a lot easier than wading through a 13 page pdf document and hoping it teaches you how to track every operating system and program in your entire workplace.

It's Intuit's choice

Right now Intuit depends on Windows users for most of its sales -- while Microsoft works to take away as many of Intuit's customers as it can.

Linux-based QuickBooks and Quicken would face no direct competition from Microsoft, and it would be easy for Intuit to get almost every popular commercial Linux distribution to include trial versions of their products in return for commissions on each software sale those trial versions generated.

The ideal way for Intuit to move gradually toward Linux would be with browser-based, Internet-capable versions of its most popular products that could be used through any desktop operating system, and could also be installed behind a company's firewall -- on a Linux-powered server, of course.

Unfortunately, the current version of QuickBooks: Online Edition only runs on Windows.

Apparently Intuit believes Microsoft's financial products will never take away enough of their Windows market share to matter. The people who developed and marketed WordPerfect and Netscape for Windows held similar beliefs. You can argue, correctly, that back when these two products were getting outcompeted by Microsoft Office and MSIE, Linux was not yet a viable desktop alternative to Windows.

But this is no longer true, and any business software company that competes directly with Microsoft and doesn't come up with a Linux alternative within the next year is opening itself to a two-front war, with Microsoft attacking it from the Windows side while a growing number of increasingly sophisticated free software projects take away potential market share among Linux users. And this could be a total disaster for Inuit, which is already operating in the red and needs to do something major to become profitable again.

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