Fri 08 Dec
For more than a decade, I’ve been using Intuit’s Quicken for Macintosh to manage my personal finances. Once upon a time, it was an elegant piece of software engineering — for anyone who’d ever balanced a checkbook, Quicken’s user interface, at least in the early days, was eminently intuitive. It worked exactly the way you’d expect it to.
Nowadays, it’s arguable whether the application has successfully retained that ease of use, or whether it’s driven off the cliff of bloat and accretion. But I know a few things for sure: for me, the Quicken franchise feels neglected, even while, as a user, I feel continually taken advantage of.
To begin with, I don’t think anyone would argue the fact that the Macintosh version consistently lags behind the Windows version in development and sophistication, and it only barely feels like a truly well-behaved software citizen on my Mac. In spite of this poor state of affairs, I feel regularly bamboozled by what I call ‘the Quicken tax,’ a combination of additional online fees that my bank charges me for accessing my account via Quicken, and the regular, forced software upgrades that Intuit demands I purchase from them every few years when they cut off support for older versions.
Still, using Quicken has been the secret to my continued financial solvency (such as it is), and I need something like it, if not Quicken itself, to help me keep track of where all these dollar bills disappear to. I count myself lucky that I was born into the age of digital tools, because I’m sure that balancing a checkbook by hand would have driven me into the poor house and/or the mad house.
So I’m casting about for a replacement. Finally. I’ve been unhappy with Quicken for some time, but it took me a long while to get to this point. As much as I dislike Quicken, I’ve always felt very comfortable with the fact that I was trusting my financial data to a company — Intuit — that’s going to be around for a while, even if they do rather abuse me as a customer. For good or bad, they’ve shown they have legs.
I’ve been reluctant, therefore, to consider any alternative from a company that doesn’t have some proven track record, that hasn’t already demonstrated that they can last. The trouble is, there are precious few competitors out there for the Macintosh — especially for the Macintosh — and insisting on a well known software publisher seems like a luxury I can’t afford if I truly want to extricate myself from Quicken.
With that newfound open-mindedness, I’ve looked, briefly, at Moneydance and Liquid Ledger. Neither caught my eye as well as did IGG Software’s iBank, which is satisfyingly Macintosh-like, well-constructed and seemingly reliable.
I’ve been using iBank for about a week and find it pleasing, though it has its small drawbacks. It lags behind Quicken in many subtle interface behaviors, like being able to click on a pie chart of your spending and automatically calling up a list of the transactions behind the data. It’s a young product, and simply can’t benefit from Quicken’s years of debatably effective interface refinements.
The problem with new entrants to this market, I suppose, is that Quicken (and, on the Windows side, Microsoft Money) are so successfully entrenched that it takes truly brave — or naïve — companies like IGG to take a chance on throwing their hats in the ring. As much as I’d like iBank to succeed, I find it hard feel optimistic about a desktop application’s chances for long-term survival against these other giants.
And I can’t help but wonder why there isn’t a truly robust, easy to use and popular Web application competing for this market. It would seem like the logical way to defuse the Quicken monopoly: an Ajax-rich interface for managing one’s personal finances that’s available from any modern Web browser. Who wouldn’t like that? And, with enough momentum, such a service can accrue the customer base necessary to build the kind of relationships with major banks that would allow users to connect directly to their account data — without the monthly access fees that my bank charges me for using Quicken to do the same.
Of the many industries that Web 2.0 startups have tackled with greater alacrity and success than the first generation of internet innovators, it strikes me that personal finances is not one of them. During Web 1.0, we got Etrade and a host of appallingly bad online account tools from consumer banks like Chase Manhattan, but the market has remained relatively stagnant since then — none of the major Web 2.0 successes deal in financial services. Not one. To me, anyway, this looks like a ripe opportunity for a startup.