ACCOUNTING SOFTWARE FOR SMALL BUSINESSES

Before the days of low-cost, high-speed Internet access and Java applications, MYOB AccountEdge 1--a versatile cross-platform application powerful enough to satisfy even the pickiest accountants--was the only viable accounting package for the Mac. Now DSL, cable, and a new wave of Java applications give Mac users a wider range of options when it comes to handling their business finances. The three products in this review achieve their goals with varying degrees of success: AccountEdge 2 and NetLedger's Web-based Oracle Small Business Suite have what it takes to handle all your accounting needs, while the Java-based MyBooks 5.1, from AppGen, falls far short.

3 Packages, 3 Worlds

When it comes to application software, AccountEdge, MyBooks, and Oracle come from three completely different worlds. AccountEdge is a traditional Mac application: you buy it in a box, install it from a CD, and run it as a native OS X application from your hard drive. MyBooks can also be bought in a box, but it's a Java-based application--which means that it can run on both Windows and Linux systems, as well as your Mac. Oracle exemplifies a completely new paradigm for computer software: the Application Service Provider (ASP). With an ASP, you don't buy a box of software and install it on your computer; instead, you pay a monthly fee to use the application via the Web and store all your data remotely. It doesn't matter what operating system you use, as long as you have a version 4 or later Web browser.

AccountEdge Enhances Ease of Use

MYOB AccountEdge was the first accounting application optimized for the new, untested OS X, and it was clear from the start that MYOB had gone to great lengths to create an accounting package that took advantage of everything OS X had to offer. With version 2--which is designed to run on OS X 10.1 and OS 8.6 and higher--the program continues to be an excellent all-purpose Mac accounting package. It sports a streamlined setup process that is less confusing than setting up previous versions; it will have you up and running in six quick steps.

Several new features, as well as some redesigned ones, make AccountEdge easier to use and more intuitive for anyone who cringes at the thought of crunching numbers. The new Bank Register gives you an immediate overview of all your accounts (in a way that is reminiscent of Quicken) and lets you directly edit transactions from within the register window. Version 2 has dispensed with accounting jargon, replacing it with easily understood terms such as Spend Money, Receive Money, and Pay Bills. You can also view your accounts either by account number or, for those of us who are accounting-impaired, by account name. So instead of having to remember that account number 6-1080 is Telephone Expenses, you can simply enter Telephone, and AccountEdge will take care of the rest.

The program can now import your bank and credit card statements, as long as your bank allows you to download them in OFX, QFX, QIF, or OFC format. But bear in mind that this is an import, not a direct connection to your banking data (as you may have come to expect if you use Quicken). In our testing, importing data was not intuitive. Additionally, we experienced unspecified import errors (with unclear error messages) while importing some Quicken data. We had to dig through an import log to resolve the problem.

Unfortunately, MYOB has not addressed a few issues we mentioned in our review of AccountEdge 1.0 (mmmmh; Reviews, March 2001): sending e-mail to anyone other than a company's primary business contact requires you to change the e-mail address to reflect the alternate contact's address; the HTML-based manual remains difficult to navigate; and searches of the manual rarely yield useful results. Also, at press time, AccountEdge ran only in single-user mode under OS X 10.1. The MYOB Web site stated that if you attempt to run the program in multiuser mode, you run the risk of irreparably corrupting your AccountEdge data. Check with MYOB to make sure this problem has been rectified if you plan to run AccountEdge with multiple users.

MyBooks Looks Good, Works Bad

If there's any question as to why Java hasn't succeeded as an application platform, MyBooks 5.1 may provide most of the answers. While MyBooks is beautiful visually--the interface is pure Aqua, right down to the icons--it's incapable of handling even basic business tasks such as data entry.

When MyBooks first loads, you have the option of using it with test data or setting up your own company via a wizard. The setup process is simple, and we had our initial business data loaded in a matter of minutes. But as soon as we began using the program, MyBooks fell flat on its face.

No customers, no vendors, no sales--essentially, there was no data in the database whatsoever. And the program appeared to be running in slow motion--so slow that there wasn't a moment during our use of MyBooks that we weren't either watching a window redraw on almost a line-by-line basis or wondering whether we'd actually pressed the button that was supposed to take us to the next module. This slowness pervaded every aspect of the program, including data entry. For instance, MyBooks couldn't keep up with normal typing speed, sometimes resulting in words with missing letters.

Other interface quirks include data fields that aren't wide enough to display the single-character data they contain; the insertion point moving from field A to B to C to D when you're clicking in field L; and buttons (with labels such as WP and Turn It Up A Notch) that have no contextual help and make no sense until you click on them. To its credit, MyBooks does have excellent contextual help for every data-entry field, but the program runs so slowly and has so many interface problems that it's truly unusable.

Oracle Reveals the Future

On the surface, the idea of renting a piece of software seems ludicrous. First, you never own the software, so if you stop paying the monthly fee, you don't have it anymore. Second, the software and your financial data never really exist on your hard drive; it's stored on someone else's computer--a thought that may terrify some users. But if you listen to Microsoft, NetLedger, and a variety of other software vendors, this is the application-software wave of the future. Oracle Small Business Suite 7.5 makes it clear that this is one wave that's worth the ride.

Here's how it works. For $100 a month, you get business accounting, sales-force automation, a 100-item Web store, customer-support tools, online bill payment (with as many as 20 checks per month), payroll, employee-expense management, time billing, unlimited telephone and e-mail support, and backups of your data twice a day. The price also includes full access for two master users and your accountant, as well as limited access for ten employees.

Want to add more master users? It'll cost $50 a month for each. Have more employees? You'll pay $50 dollars a month for each block of ten. Need to write more checks? It's $13 for each additional block of 20 checks. And so it goes for every other feature that Oracle offers: if you want more functionality than you have in your existing plan, you can get it for a monthly fee.

While Oracle lacks the visual appeal of the other two packages, it remains a powerful and versatile program. Like the two desktop-based applications, it uses a simple setup process to help you get your company in order. But unlike AccountEdge and MyBooks, Oracle will take you a couple of hours to get set up and ready to go. Once your accounts are in order and you've set up employees, vendors, and customers, you can give them all varying degrees of access to your data; for example, you can let customers and vendors see their account history and order information on the Web.

Oracle handles estimates, orders, and invoices seamlessly, pulling inventory items from your database--whether they're entered by a salesperson or via your Oracle Small Business Web store--and it allows you to have multiple price points for your customers. The Web store does have some limitations. While it's easy to put together and maintain a Web store when it's hosted on the Oracle Web site, if you want to integrate the store into your existing site, you can expect to spend quite a bit of time cutting and pasting HTML into your Web pages.

Invoices and checks that you want to print locally are downloaded to your hard drive as PDF files, but you can also e-mail or fax invoices directly to your customers from within Oracle. There are dozens of reports, from standard accounting to Web-store­traffic reports. You can view them online or download them to your hard drive as either Excel or Word files.

If Oracle has one major shortcoming, it's the need for speed. NetLedger strongly suggests that you have a DSL, cable, or T1 connection to the Internet. In our experience, even at DSL and T1 speeds, the Oracle Web pages were not always snappy and sometimes the data took several seconds to load.

Macworld's Buying Advice

At $100 for five users, MyBooks is far less expensive than either AccountEdge or Oracle Small Business Suite, but the program is unusable in any work environment. Both AccountEdge and Oracle Small Business Suite are superior accounting programs. AccountEdge's more intuitive interface makes it a compelling option for non-accountants, but Oracle Small Business Suite may provide a slight advantage to users willing to spend $100 per month and unafraid to store their data on the Web. That's partly because AccountEdge lacks support for multiple users and because Oracle offers a broader range of features--including Web stores and secure, worldwide data and application access for all your vendors, customers, and employees.

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