Saturday, June 02, 2007


No sooner had I finished whining yesterday about how much I had to do than I sat down to work on payroll. I use Quickbooks Pro, and I pay Intuit $200 a year to keep withholding tax tables up to date.

Of course, there was a problem. I have the 2004 version of Quickbooks, and I had been notified that it would no longer have access to payroll updates after May 31. It's Quickbooks' way of guaranteeing that it can sell enough new software to recoup the cost of creating useless updates every year.

I wasn't happy about that because I had absolutely no desire to change my version of Quickbooks. I didn't care if they dropped tech support for old versions because I never use tech support. I didn't care about having the latest version because the version I had worked just fine. And I didn't care much about losing access to payroll updates, even though I would still be paying for the updates for a couple of more months. It would be a problem eventually, I supposed, but not between May 31, the last day I had access, and June 1, the day I did payroll.

What I didn't realize was that not only would I lose access to new updates, but I also lost access to all of the updates I have been paying $16.58 a month for all these years. That information, which my money apparently only rented but did not purchase, simply disappeared. My withholding levels went to zero for every employee. My Quickbooks program, which I had carefully maintained, learned and updated for three years, had suddenly become worthless.

So I spent a half-hour wrangling with two different service reps, an hour and a half downloading a new Quickbooks version and at least an hour updating file formats to be compatible with the new version -- the old files weren't compatible with the new version, which makes the guarantee for the new version worthless. So like it or not, I'm out $170 to own an expensive new piece of software that I neither needed nor wanted and that, so far as I can tell, runs slower and is less convenient than the version it replaced. And I got payroll done three hours late, in part because I couldn't see the computer screen because of all the steam pouring out of my ears.

Somebody please explain to me why I am wrong to be unhappy about this. To me it is no different than if automobile manufacturers, in order to pay for ongoing R&D, simply placed a small incendiary device inside every vehicle so that it would blow into pieces every three years. In fact, that's sort of what the big American manufacturers used to do until the Japanese proved that there is money to be made in building cars that last.

The Quickbooks people apparently haven't learned that lesson. I used to praise Quickbooks as the only piece of software I owned that was both understandable and useful. I will never praise it again. Quickbooks turned a loyal customer into an enemy. Nice going, guys.

SIDEBAR: One alternative is to simply get the tax table information and enter it into an Excel spreadsheet, then compute each employee's payroll taxes manually each pay period. Then my money goes to Bill Gates instead of the geeks at Intuit, which doesn't make me a heck of a lot happier. Early one Wednesday a few weeks ago, I was struggling desperately on deadline to get the paper out -- I had been working about 16 hours and had eight pages to go with about five hours to get them done. Suddenly my computer flashed me a message: Windows had downloaded an important new update and needed to restart the computer. Would I like to restart now or wait until later? Naturally, I clicked later. About five minutes later, I got the message again. Then again. And again. For a couple of hours, the message popped up every few minutes with no way to make it go away.

Finally, I had to go to the other computer to print out some pages. While I was gone, of course, the message popped up again. When I didn't answer, it restarted my computer and closed all my programs, wasting whatever hadn't been saved.

What the heck? Bill Gates, you may own the world, but you don't own my computer. Keep your grimy hands off.


Mark T said...

Boy you hit on a sore spot. Quickbooks long ago had the wheel invented - their business model has shifted from getting market share to exploiting their existing market. They've got to come up with a new version every year - all they have done is load up the program with crap few people use and that slows it down. Finally they settled on payroll as a profit center and tied it into taking out their newer versions.

That's how people behave when they control too much market share - as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning.

In the newspaper business, they call it "making book". QB's investors demand a certain ROI each year, and to get it the managers have to struggle with ways to force old customers to come up with new money. It used to be that you could carry on with an old version of Quickbooks for years and years - they put a stop to that.

Microsoft does have a product they put out to compete with Quickbooks - I learned how to use it thinking that it would storm the market, but it never caught on.

Vince said...

Wow, $200 a year for the updates! In a previous lifetime I wrote payroll software, one of the first to run on a PC, and I only charged $25 a year for the updates. Maybe I should have stayed in that business.

As for switching to Excel, you can do that for free if you install Open Office instead. I've been using it for years and it's a near exact copy of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

I do feel your pain regarding software in general. As a certified (or certifiable) computer geek, I've used more software than most people and have been since the late 70s. Overall, it's all become easier to use, however, the applications are becoming so feature-laden that the ease-of-use trend may be reversing.

David said...

Just curious, Vince: What did a gallon of gas cost in that previous lifetime?

Cluttering up programs with features is really bad for my business. I remember sitting through newsroom computer demonstrations loaded with bells, whistles and gimmicks. But a newspaper (and most other businesses, I suspect) really needs software that does just a few things fast and reliably. Ninety percent of the features go unused.

I've been struggling with the new QuickBooks for four or five days now, and it seems to be about half as fast as the previous version and takes up much more space on the computer. The new interface still confuses and slows me down, and a few apparently random changes appear to be specifically designed to throw off longtime users.

So the new program is still costing me money. And I'm still not happy

Anonymous said...

There are alternatives, here is one worth considering.

Vince said...

David, you asked, "What did a gallon of gas cost in that previous lifetime?" That was 1980 and, according to one online source, adjusted to 2007 dollars, gasoline then was $3.07.

What's interesting is what happened to the cost of the hardware that runs your software. I wrote my payroll software to run on the Apple ][. The Apple system, at that time, or an equivalent IBM, with 48K RAM, 2 floppy drives, no hard drive, a monochrome monitor, and dot-matrix printer, was about $2,600. Adjusted for inflation, that is the same as $6,500 today. A new computer today, that will run any record-keeping software, costs less than $500, thanks to Moore's Law.

That said, I do feel your pain when it comes to feature bloat. The software makers long ago noticed they had a problem. Unlike hardware, that eventually wears out, software runs forever (Y2K and the year 2038 problems notwithstanding.) If you buy a program that accomplishes the task, why upgrade? To encourage you to do so, additional features are added, sometimes features that are actually desirable, but usually not. Now that feature bloat has hit a plateau, they are now looking at moving from the purchasing model to a rental model. Many applications require a yearly fee to keep them "active." Call it a support fee, an upgrade fee, or whatever, but it ensures their revenue stream. This has been common in large business software and has been trickling into the consumer level over the years. Look at Norton Anti-Virus as an example.

Of course, much of this frustration has fueled the open source software movement where programmers write applications and give them away. The Open Office application I mentioned in a previous post is only one example and there are dozens of free payroll applications as well. You can find them at

Anonymous said...

Quicken was a phenomenal product when introduced about 20 years ago: it was a stable double entry accounting system for $40, bringing the price down from the $500 to thousands.

To clarify for readers: if you don't utilize their payroll feature, you don't need to upgrade your Quickbooks. I'm still running a 2000 version.