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Sage, who has seen how costly application customization can be, has created a series of template-based charts of accounts, with the last count indicating they had over 70 of Charts of Accounts that could be quickly used by customers to customize for their business. Sage has also seen that inordinate customization of software can lead to a lack of adoption; hence their motivation for creating a library that can easily be used by customers. As Peachtree suffered from an exceptionally bad reputation for usability in its first several product generations on the Microsoft Windows platform (Collins, 2006), Sage is attempting to overcome these limitations through intensive investment in ergonomics and usability. Adding to these efforts include the development of an Online Knowledgebase and Help Center, in addition to the development of AJAX-based microsites that interlink content together. All of these sources of data are in turn integrated via XML to what Sage is calling the Navigation Center. Sage is attempting to overcome the inherent limitations that are still present in the previous generation of Peachtree Accounting applications which included cascading screens that were non-modal, meaning they could not be selected out of sequence. This resulted in a significant level of frustration on the part of many Peachtree users and is still recalled by small businesses that spent hours attempting to make the software work correctly. Peachtree Accounting software also required the entering of specific keys and codes, much like an ERP system, to get transactions to be completed and recorded properly. Finally, Peachtree was also known of as an application that did not have upward or backward compatibility of resource and data files, which further forced users to create work-arounds in the area of data export and import. All of these factors have contributed to Sage seeking to reverse the troublesome reputation Peachtree has had in the area of usability over the last few decades.
Unlike Peachtree and their decades of frustration relative to usability, Intuit Software has been able to capitalize on the lessons learned in other product divisions including TurboTax to create highly usable applications including Intuit QuickBooks Pro and Basic. Intuit in fact has been credited with being able to fight off Microsoft in their core segments by concentrating on usability lessons learned in other areas of their business and then applying them in tax, accounting and finance (Qazi, 2005). Intuit then builds usability into their QuickBooks Pro and Basic applications using the accumulated knowledge the company has attained over time and captured into a knowledgebase accessible to each software engineering, product development and product management team. This knowledgebase has proven to be invaluable in creating Web-based versions of its taxation, accounting and financial analsysi software (Lin, Smith, 2006).
As a result of these investments however Intuit still has a series of usability challenges with respect to how they are attempting to integrate Wizard-based navigation for entry-level users vs. providing menus for mid-level users and macros including API command sets for advanced users. Of these three levels however, the majority of intelligence within the Intuit knowledgebase is in the most intuitive areas of design, or the low-end of the product line. As a result, higher-end users are often frustrated by the lack of advanced usability and programming possible (Qazi, 2005). As of 2009 Intuit has not fully addressed the usability aspects for higher-end users, choosing to instead concentrate on creating a portal-based product platform that supports Intuit QuickBooks Pro and Basic from a modular standpoint. While the portals were created to enable a much greater level of consistency to navigation between Intuit QuickBooks Pro and Basic, there exists a lack of consistency in terms workflows and sequences of steps to get a Chart of Accounts created for example, or create a financial statement. In other words the portal navigation for QuickBooks Pro-versus Basic is fundamentally different. While the usability has been specifically created to allow for novices to use these applications, there is a significant lack of support for more advanced process worfkflows and second, for more advanced user functions.
Contrasting Sage (Peachtree) and Intuit QuickBooks Pro and Basic usability, Microsoft's Small Business Accounting has been designed to provide first-time users with consistency in terms of process workflows to get common tasks done while also having APIs and scalability for more advanced users. Microsoft has taken the usability lessons learned from their enterprise server applications and integrated them into the Small Business Accounting suite of applications. This includes support for the Microsoft SharePoint Server platform which Microsoft charges on average $85 per user for in a license-based configuration. SharePoint Portal Server also has integration links directly to the APIs for Outlook 2003 and 2007, in addition to support for Office 10. This level of integration makes it possible for Microsoft to create accounting and finance-based workflows that in fact transcend office automation and accounting applications, giving small businesses more opportunity to customize their own approach to completing their accounting. Just as Intuit has created a limited set of APIs for more advanced users and Sage is working to create more introductory level usability, Microsoft has concentrated their usability efforts on the ability to move seamlessly between Microsoft Office, SharePoint, Microsoft Excel and the Small Business Accounting series of applications. As Microsoft has perhaps the most pervasive and well-defined knowledgebase of ergonomics and usability research of anyone in the software industry (Qazi, 2005), their Accounting suite of applications have configurable and customizable set-up Wizards, Wikis or knowledge bases, and the ability to define customized interfaces and process workflows.
As was stated at the in the first section of this analysis, the ability to align with process workflows and integrate accounting data seamlessly beyond pure accounting functionality is critical. Of the accounting applications covered in this report, only Microsoft is capable of accomplishing this. Microsoft relies on a Forms Manager to create these inter-application connections between .NET enabled components within their applications. The result is seamless workflows that traverse office automation, accounting, portal and services applications depending on what the user is attempting to accomplish with the software.
Given the widespread support of the SaaS platform each of these vendors also offers trail downloads from their websites and also entirely Web-based versions of their applications as well. The pricing for licensed versions is aggressive as well. Intuit QuickBooks Pro and Basic is priced at $199 and there are trial editions that are entirely Web-based that can be used to test drive the application. Intuit does not publish its user license data, while Peachtree does however. Peachtree Sage Accounting lists at the low-end at $199, and a five-user license costing $699 and a ten user license being $4,450. By far Peachtree Sage Accounting is the most expensive of any of the applications in this analysis. Their fully featured Peachtree by Sage Quantum 2010, 40 User, and Business Care Essential Plan for 40 users goes for $13,150. Clearly Sage is looking to move more into the direct sales model using this approach over time. Microsoft's Small Business Accounting Software sells for $199 at its most basic level.
Given the extent of the integration possible using Microsoft Small Business Professional suite, branded Microsoft Office Accounting Professional 2009, it is recommended that this application serve as the basis of the comparison during development efforts. The integration links between .NET and other applications also make this platform one that can potentially be expanded on over time, adding in functionality and workflows across office automation applications as well.
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