Attentive long-time readers of LWN may remember that this business is based
entirely on free software with one distressing exception: our business
accounting is still done using the proprietary "QuickBooks Pro" package.
QuickBooks does not lack for aggravations, but the task of replacing it has
never quite attained a high enough priority for something to actually
happen. Good replacements in the free
software community are hard to come by, accounting is boring, our
accountant deals easily (and cheaply) with QuickBooks files, and the
existing solution, for the most part, simply works. Or, at least, it
to simply work.
The monthly accounting ritual involves importing a lot of data from the web
site into the accounting application; in particular, subscription sales
need to be properly fed in so that we can minimize our taxes on the income
in the proper American tradition. This process normally works just fine,
but, recently, it failed, saying: "Cannot import, not enough disk space or
too many records exist." Naturally, in QuickBooks style, it failed partway
through the import process, leaving a corrupted accounting file behind.
But QuickBooks users usually learn to make backups frequently and can take such
things in stride.
The inability to feed data into the system is a little harder to take in
stride, though, especially once some investigation proved that disk space
is not in short supply and the failure is elsewhere. It didn't take much
time searching to turn up an interesting, unadvertised QuickBooks
antifeature: there is a software-imposed limit of 14,500 "list items,"
which include products offered by the company, vendors, customers, and
more. Once that
limit is hit, QuickBooks will not allow any more items to be entered; the
only supported way out is to upgrade to the "enterprise" version, which can
currently be done for a special offer price of only $2400.
In other words: Intuit sells a program that is intended to become an
integral part of a business's core processes, perhaps even functioning as a
point-of-sale system. This program will, without warning, simply cease to
function once the business accumulates an arbitrary number of entries. The
only way for that business to get a working accounting system back is to
"upgrade" to a new version that costs ten times as much. One can only
conclude that this proprietary software package has not been written with
its users' needs as the top priority. Instead, it contains a hidden
trap to force them into more expensive offerings at a time when they may
have little alternative. Who would have ever thought proprietary programs
could be that way?
Here at LWN,
we had no particularly urgent need to get things working again; other
businesses may well not have the luxury of enough time to find an
acceptable way out of this situation. It is, thus, unsurprising that there
are entire businesses being built
around this little surprise from Intuit.
Needless to say, there is little enthusiasm in the LWN head office for the
purchase of an expensive and proprietary "enterprise" accounting system.
In the short term, a workaround has been found: sacrifice most of our
accounting history to bring the record count to a level where the program
will consent to function as advertised. That has other interesting side
effects, like mysteriously changing the balances of reconciled accounts
from previous years, but it does take the immediate pressure off. For now,
we can continue to do our books.
But a clear message has been delivered here: it is about time that we at
LWN read some pages from our own publication and realize that a dependence
on proprietary software poses a real risk to our business. A company that
is willing to put one such hostile surprise into an important application
will put in others and, without the source, there is no way anybody can look
for them or remove them if they are found. QuickBooks is too risky to
continue to use.
It is, in other words, time to make the move to a free accounting program.
When we have looked at the available tools in the past, the results have
always been a little disappointing. There is no shortage of software that
can maintain a chart of accounts and a set of double-ledger books. But
there has been, in the past, a relative scarcity of useful accounting tools
for small businesses. Instead, what's out there is:
- Various personal finance utilities, including GnuCash, KMyMoney,
and others. For basic accounting they work well, but they fall short
of a business's needs.
- Massive enterprise-oriented toolkits that can be used to build
systems implementing accounting, inventory-tracking, point-of-sale, customer
relationship management, supply-chain management, human resources,
and invoicing, with add-on modules for bill collection, weather
prediction, automated trading, and bread baking. These systems have
names like ADempiere, Compiere, OpenERP, LedgerSMB, and Apache OFBiz. The target users
for these projects appear to be consultants and businesses with
full-time people dedicated to keeping the system running. To a
business like LWN, they tend to look like a box with hundreds of
nearly identical parts and a little note saying "some assembly
What is missing in the middle is a package for a business with no special
accounting needs, but which needs to be able to automate data entry,
generate tax forms at the end of the year, and interface with an
accountant so it can get its taxes done. Given how incredibly exciting
small-business accounting is, it's surprising that so few developers have
felt a burning need to scratch that particular itch. There is no
accounting for taste, it seems.
That said, it has been a few years since we last made a serious effort to
learn about free software accounting alternatives; clearly the time has
come for another pass. So we'll be doing it, with an eye toward,
hopefully, making the transition at the end of the calendar year. That
gives us several months to forget about the problem while still allowing a
few months of panic at the end, so the schedule should be plausible.
Stay tuned for updates, it should be an interesting ride. But we are
pretty well determined not to find out what other surprises our
proprietary accounting system may have in store for us. In 2012, it should
be possible to run a small, simple business on free software and never have
to wonder when the accounting system will stop functioning and demand more
money. We intend to prove it.
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