Intuit caused a stir among Mac users this summer when it announced plans to release a new version of QuickBooks, the long-dormant small-business finance program that hadn't been updated in four years. That all changes in early 2003 when Intuit says it will release a new Mac version of Quicken that will run on both Mac OS 9 and X. To find out why QuickBooks is returning to the Mac and what Intuit has planned for the new version, Macworld spoke with David Story, chief technology officer for Intuit's small business and personal finance division, and Adam Samuels, product manager for Quicken and QuickBooks for the Mac.
Q: Let's talk about QuickBooks--the history of the product and why Intuit stopped Mac development, and why you're planning on releasing a new version of the product next year.
Story: Actually, I wanted to give you a little bit of background [first]... It's been a fun thing to get involved in this Macintosh product for me in particular. I owned one of the first Macintoshes back in 1984 and did programming on my Fat Mac. I waited for the Fat Mac, for the 512K version, because I knew that they were wrong about 128K. After that I did a whole lot of Unix work, and now I'm back at Intuit. I never imagined that I would be able to combine my love for the Apple with all my Unix background and be running a consumer product that runs on Unix. It's going to be a pretty amazing thing to see that happening. So it's actually been a neat circle for me.
Q: Why is Intuit putting out a new Mac version of QuickBooks after all this time?
Story: In looking at QuickBooks and its history, the key thing about our decision to bring it back has just been listening to customers. A lot of people don't know that we survey thousands of customers every year. And recently, we've seen an uptick in interest in the re-release of a version. What drove us this time are a couple of factors. OS X is clearly very exciting for us. It's exciting for our customers. And we wanted to make sure we were compatible and taking advantage of OS X. There's a lot of things from user interface to just the stability and multitasking of the operating system that we wanted to make sure we were compatible with. In our most recent surveys, we just saw a tremendous demand. That's really what drives Intuit--customers telling us what they want and then us taking that to the next level and really understanding what they need and providing that to them. You've seen that over and over again, from the initial release of QuickBooks and Quicken, just really solving specific consumer problems in a way that just really try to nail it. This time around, in constant surveying of customers, they really wanted us to do a version that worked with OS X and took advantage of some of that, and they wanted to see an ongoing commitment to the platform. That's what we're talking about here--a long-term commitment, a multiple year commitment to develop QuickBooks for the Macintosh. Intuit's really excited, and we're committed to developing on the Macintosh. Listening to our customers is just really critical to us.
Q: Does OS X make it more appealing to develop a Mac version, particularly when it comes to updating the product?
Samuels: OS X is a really solid platform, and a lot of the work we're going to be doing on this first release is making things work well in that environment. After that, our development environment, programming-wise, is built on that same platform. It's going to be pretty much the same for us to maintain as it has been in the past.
Story: I don't see a significant advantage to the ongoing maintenance. One of the things that we've done over the years is build into QuickBooks the ability for it to be updated.
Samuels: We've done that on the Quicken side. So Quicken has the ability to notify and do updates. With QuickBooks, we basically have a patch mechanism. But the user would need to be notified and then download. Just to clarify, we're going to continue to support OS 9 and OS X in this release, so we are making decisions and programming and coding to support both of those platforms. Essentially, we are built on top of Carbon for this release. That's the way we've done Quicken since we came out with our OS X version there.
Q: What role did Apple play in this? Was the company pushing you to revive QuickBooks? Or was it a something they weren't really involved in?
Story: We work really closely with Apple. We've got a good relationship there at all levels of the company. This was definitely something where we wanted to inform them, let them know what we were up, and get their input because they actually have a lot of the voice of the customer coming into Apple. We definitely look to Apple as a partner and to explain to them what our product plans are, where we're going. In this particular case, that was an important thing to do with them. And we definitely looked to them for what insight they had into what customers wanted on their platform--what was new, what was different, what we should be doing around OS X, what were the most critical things they'd seen in other applications.
Q: You've talked about customer input and the role it's played. Besides the demand for OS X support and a multiyear commitment from Intuit, is there anything else you've learned from surveying customers?
Story: One of the exciting things for me has been to see that the Macintosh community is just as active as it has been in past years, and more so in many cases. After the announcement, we had over 5,000 inquiries for more information at our Web site. And one of the features that we wanted to make sure we had present on that Web site was a Tell A Friend button. That's been very heavily used. We've been getting not only a lot of people registering themselves for updates and information, but also telling friends. The network of Macintosh users of QuickBooks is very vibrant, very strong. When I joined the company, I went to a QuickBooks training course. The customer I sat next to was using the Macintosh QucikBooks version and was able to follow along on all the training. It was just really awesome in my first training course to sit next to a Macintosh user.
Q: What was the last version of QuickBooks released for the Mac? QuickBooks 4.0?
Story: Yeah, the last major release was the 4.0 version.
Q: Why did development stop? What was the reasoning behind that decision?
Story: The essential reason was that we knew we could continue to offer support for QuickBooks for the Mac. We'd been looking at other products and saying, "We can go to not-annual releases of these." And when we looked at customer demand, they were pretty satisfied with that product. That product has just outsold everything else. It's been a fantastic product for us. So what we decided to do was keep very active and keep track of what new things customers wanted. When that hit critical mass, we decided to reinstitute our Macintosh business and set up a separate Macintosh business specifically focused on that to make sure we were able to take advantage of OS X and meet a backlog of customer needs.
Q: So the perception among some Mac users that QuickBooks abandoned the Mac platform, you wouldn't say that was accurate?
Story: If you look at it from Intuit's perspective as a whole company, we've continued to release TurboTax and Quicken and really been dedicated to the Macintosh platform. It was simply on the QuickBooks side the customer demand was appropriate to keep the current version running. So that's why we focused on maintenance releases and patches and updates for QuickBooks. And now it's time to come back and really focus in on that. There's another aspect that the Macintosh community may not be aware of--this is part of Intuit's larger Right for My Business strategy. It's something we've been building up over a couple years and are now talking about. The cornerstone of our future business strategy is "right for my particular business." When you roll that strategy out and think about it, it means that Macintosh businesses... there's a lot of really intense loyalty to QuickBooks, and there are now things we can do that are specifically right for Macintosh businesses. Internally, we call it RFMB. In our group, we kind of kid ourselves that it's "Right for Macintosh Businesses."
Q: What can we expect from the new version--a basic port over to OS X or will new features appear?
Story: We're going to be a little bit shy on that one because we want to make sure that there are additional surprises for our customers as we go along. Probably the best thing we can say is that it will be out in the first quarter of next year and that the top thing that scored most heavily with our customers has been OS X support.
Q: Have you set a price yet?
Samuels: We don't have that information at this time.
Q: How about parity with the Windows version? Is that something folks can expect?
Story: What we find is that QuickBooks users on the Macintosh had unique needs. For instance, OS X compatibility is critical, but totally uninteresting to the other platforms. We think the product will always be unique from the PC version because of Mac users having unique, special needs. So what I expect this team to do is innovate in ways we can't do on the PC platform. The Macintosh platform provides an opportunity for us and has such a vigorous user base that we can test out new concepts, and over the next couple of years, I think you'll see some of those. I can't speak to what they are yet. But in looking at what we can do on the Macintosh platform, there are things that we can trial with that user base that we aren't able to do on the Windows platform.
Q: Obviously, it's a different landscape on the Mac platform with new products available to small businesses--notably MYOB's AccountEdge and FirstEdge. How does Intuit figure to compete?
Story: I think that QuickBooks is a fantastic product, and this may sound blind, but we don't really look too much at the other products as the reason for us reintroducing the product. We just a saw a need from the customer. They said, "We love QuickBooks. We want to keep using QuickBooks. We would use QuickBooks forever, if we possibly could." With our new Right for My Business strategy, we decided, hey, let's get back and let's be committed on QuickBooks for the Macintosh. What we're looking at is long-term plans to develop it and to continue to look at the user feedback and the surveys we do to drive that.... If there's one message I could get across, it's that Intuit's committed, we're excited, we're developing for the Mac, we're going to do it for multiple years, and it's because customers asked us to.