Quicken Gets Web 2.0 Update

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Intuit is giving a Web 2.0 makeover to Quicken, its franchise desktop personal accounting brand.

Last week, accounting and business software behemoth Intuit (Stock Quote: INTU) rolled out the latest riff on its personal accounting and small-business package, Quicken 2011 (Starter Edition, $30; Premier Edition, $90). Intuit has been feeling the personal finance pressure of late. American Express (Stock Quote: AXP), Citi (Stock Quote: C) and JPMorgan Chase (Stock Quote: JPM)-- not to mention startups such as SmartyPig, Foonance and Geezeo -- now offer spiffy personal finance and accounting tools for little or nothing.

So last year, Intuit decided to change up. It took out online finance software phenom Mint.com for a cool $170 million, and made that company's founder, Aaron Patzer, responsible for Quicken.Then it wound down Quicken Online and replaced it with Mint.com, and finally gave the desktop version of Quicken a big, bad Web 2.0-ish makeover.

Considering the stakes for Intuit, and the popularity of Quicken as an accounting tool for sole proprietors and microfirms, I have been giving the code the once-over in my small shop and got an extensive demo by Patzer himself. Here's what I think:

WHAT YOU GET

As expected, this is a collaborative, easy-to-use, Web-ish version of Quicken.

Right away, you will feel the online vibe with this desktop software. The new Quicken is faster, leaner, and comes with Web-based data collection features that grab content from about 5,000 financial institutions. Setup is simple: Load the software, enter your account and personal information as requested and, in about a half-hour, you'll have a reasonably accurate picture of your finances. Voila.

The code is simple to use. Everything is organized by tabs such as Spending, Bills, Planning and Investing. There is intriguing use of mutual fund data and real-time pricing information. And given enough setup time -- more on that in a second -- work expenses can be clearly separated from personal spending. And business tax information can be gleaned and shipped to an accountant.

I must say, having my finance software on a computer under my direct control really does give me a comfy, secure feeling.

WHAT YOU DON'T GET

Don't expect this to be a bombproof small-business accounting solution, or an instant hit with consumers.

For all its power and upside, Quicken 2011 has the unsettling qualities of other nouveau accounting tools. Centuries-old bean counting conventions such as revenue and earnings are abandoned for near-meaningless definitions such as bills and spending. Whose bills? Mine? My dependents'? My contractors'? Also, Intuit takes great pride in being 90 percent accurate in its automated importation of data. Yes, that's impressive, but the IRS will not be impressed with the 10 percent of entries that are wrong. All ledger data really do need to be checked by hand for accuracy, which is a drag.

Intuit responded that my issues with Quicken were due to me reviewing this product as an accounting tool for small businesses, rather than strictly as a personal finance tool.

"Once you get two or three employees," Patzer said, "You move up to QuickBooks or a similar small-business accounting package."

And, he said, the average user will be satisfied with Quicken's fiscal logic.

On a larger level, it is not clear if the software's features -- no matter how spiffy -- will be enough to differentiate Quicken in a crowded market with dozens of free and low-cost personal finance options.

BOTTOM LINE

Overall, Quicken 2011 is a solid upgrade. It's fast, robust and offers many easy-to-use personal finance options. Within limits, it can keep small firms on the right side of the law. But I still would advise any small business to consult an accountant on using the ledgers so no mistakes are made.

And only time will tell if the market will pay even $30 for something as widely available as personal finance software.

The fact is, personal finance software is a mature, brutally deflationary sector; and even a brand as powerful as Intuit's Quicken may have no answer for that.

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