The stage is set for a showdown in the next few months.

Intuit will release Quickbooks 2006 this fall with an extensive facelift, the first significant changes in the program in several years. The early screenshots look promising. There will be more editions for specific industries, a new database engine for better support of multiple users, and Intuit claims to have improved integration with Word, Excel and Outlook.

Intuit was motivated by Microsoft’s upcoming competitor, Microsoft Small Business Accounting, aimed directly at Quickbooks. The interface looks gorgeous, designed to mimic Outlook 2003, and the program is deeply integrated with Word and Excel for reporting, invoicing, and the like.

I took a quick look at a beta of Microsoft’s program but I walked away for the moment. The tool to import Quickbooks data was broken; I assume that will be fixed in the final release. Microsoft claims it is targeting businesses not currently using an accounting program, but of course it secretly hopes to convert existing Quickbooks users. Online banking is not yet available; again, I assume they will have lined up all the big financial institutions before the final release.

But more importantly, one of the lures would be the integration with Outlook. The promise is that you can open up a contact in Outlook and get a view of that customer’s financial info as well as e-mail and appointment history, all in one place.

The Small Business Accounting program attempts to accomplish by integrating with Business Contact Manager, a quirky add-on for Outlook. I’ve taken a look at BCM twice and each time I found my head started to hurt. It sets up a database completely separate from your Outlook mailbox, and runs in a way that prevents the database from being shared with anyone else. It gathers information from your Outlook folders in a way that I found fairly unintuitive. Once it’s in place, Small Business Accounting can link to that database and BCM can gather data from the accounting program – and I just about went nuts trying to figure out how that worked. Everywhere I looked there were limitations, instead of the smooth flow of linked information I was hoping for. (Microsoft has a grown-up database for customer relationship management, Microsoft CRM, but that’s out of reach for most small businesses.)

I’m sure it can be made to work – and like most things these days, you frequently become happy with whatever you get used to. But I didn’t feel the instant excitement that would lead me to convert my own business or push a client to convert theirs.

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