Aug 16, 2007

Quicken on a Mac: Don't let the door hit you on the way out

There are rumors that the Mac version of Intuit's financial application Quicken is on it's death bead. Derik DeLong seems to think so anyway. The question I have is, does anyone really care? Quicken for the Mac is ugly, buggy, and barely usable. The Windows version is nice, but cluncky in my opinion. So does anyone use Quicken anymore and what value does it bring?

Case in point: about 4 years ago, my brother was hurting financially. He's not at all computer savvy, but he thought maybe he could put together a spreadsheet to help him track expenses and budget for the future. He and his father-in-law, also not at all a geek, sat down with Excel 97 running on Windows 98 and together they came up with a very simple spreadsheet. When my brother showed it to me (I was also hurting for cash at the time) I was blown away by it.

At the same time, I had been trying to use Quicken (Windows) to keep track of my expenses and budget. But I had been unable to translate the data I was putting into Quicken into a real plan for getting out of debt and back on track controlling my expenses. The real questions I wanted Quicken to answer for me were: How much money do I have? (it did that one great) How much will I have at the end of the week? (not very helpful there) Will I be able to pay my bills after I buy *enter toy here*? (again nada)

My brother's spreadsheet very simply answered these questions. So I had him print it out for me and I took it home, jazzed it up a little, and I had a spreadsheet that would get me back on track. It's now 4 years later. In that time my income has increased significantly, I'm now married, I have 2 kids, a mortgage, and other typical bills. But, ironically, I still use that simple spreadsheet which has remained virtually unchanged to manage my finances and my budget. I have never seen it's equal (although I've wanted to write a new version using Rails for about 2 years now).

But here's the point. How is it that my unschooled, non-geek, brother (By the way, he's exceptionally smart in other areas... just not computer tech) --- how is it that he could come up with something so practical and useful? Why can't those software shops at Microsoft (Money), and Intuit (Quicken) figure out how to really help people get their finances on track? I'll tell you why, and it's a lesson all development shops need to learn.

First, don't build software that collects data unless you plan to answer real world questions with that data. In order to get those questions, don't ask the developers. They don't know. You need to ask the users who will use the software. You need to be able to solve real issues.

Second, the problem with the current state of personal finance software is that they are all recreating what is already there. Log transactions, see where money goes, create a budget that consists of where you want to spend your money in the next X amount of days / months / years. That's it! All upgrades to Quicken and other financial apps have just focused on those few features. There is no connection between the money spent, current money on hand, and future purchases. Without that connection you can't answer the questions I stated above. Being able to answer those questions is key in making the data bring value to the consumer. Putting it simply, think beyond the current feature set and come up with something helpful and new. Spending release cycles on pure eye-candy but that does not bring more value does not help the consumer.

So to wrap up this long and ranting post, let me just say that I would be happy to see Quicken for the Mac go. See ya! Maybe someday I can take my simple spreadsheet, turn it into an app, enter the marketplace, and blow people away by it.

Hmmm... doesn't all this sound a little familiar?


gthornock said...

Your simple spreadsheet sounds like exactly what I need :)

I've been looking for a basic way to track finances on my Powerbook, and I'm altogether unwilling to spend the money for Quicken -- partly because of its reputation for bugginess, partly because it's simply overkill for what I'm trying to do, and partly because (as I readily admit) I'm too much the cheapskate.

I've thought about running GnuCash, which would take care of at least the third objection, but it won't compile from MacPorts right now, and I really don't want to set up a FreeBSD "machine" in VirtualPC just for that.

Your spreadsheet sounds like an ideal solution. Does it work in Numbers? :)

Mike Farmer said...

I don't have a Numbers version of it yet, but that shouldn't be too difficult to put together. I've had a couple of other requests for a copy so I may put something together. I'll let you know.