April 18, 2014

MYOB claims Steve Jobs, Bill Gates as allies in syncing debate

Should accounting be done on the PC or browser?

Who said this? “I think the marriage of some really great client apps with some really great cloud services is incredibly powerful and right now can be way more powerful than just having a browser on the client.”

Most recently it was accounting software company MYOB, in Sydney two days ago at the launch of its cloud service, MYOB AccountRight Live. MYOB was calling out its competitors about the best way to write a cloud-based business application. In short, MYOB is saying that browser-only programs are the wrong way to do accounts in the cloud and it is pulling on some serious IT cred to back its position.

That quote was first uttered by the late, great Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, at a crucial point in history. Jobs was speaking at a conference held in 2007, a month before the launch of the first ever iPhone.

He was sitting next to Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, who agreed that “local devices” – meaning laptops, desktop PCs, smartphones and tablets – would continue to use heavily featured, installed programs rather than access everything through the browser.

“You’re going to have rich local functionality. At least that’s our bet,” Gates said.

Before the conference, Jobs reportedly was against the idea of installing apps on the phone itself. He preferred a browser-only model where the applications sat in the internet. It wasn’t until he had a chance to use a prototype of the phone that he changed his mind, according to his approved biography.

Today smartphone apps are a part of life. There is no question Apple made the right decision.

Why does this debate matter? Who cares if the accounting program sits on your computer or in your browser?

Well, the majority of cloud accounting software programs around the world have chosen the latter. From the small business end, such as QuickBooks Online, Wave Accounting, Kashflow, Outright, FreshBooks, ClearBooks, Free Agent and of course Xero and Saasu, through to high-end ERP systems such as Intacct, NetSuite and SAP Business by Design, all these accounting programs run in the browser.

But Australia’s largest accounting software company has taken a completely different tack. MYOB users can continue using their desktop versions of AccountRight as before and the software takes over the responsibility of syncing the data file between the desktop and the cloud. MYOB users can still log into a browser to access their data file, and share that file with their accountant or bookkeeper or anyone else, but they still have the option of using the desktop program.

MYOB sells the benefits of its approach as “a smooth move to the cloud”. There is practically no difference for MYOB users who want to use AccountRight Live – they keep using the same program and interface, there is no need to retrain on another program and no importing of data. Life continues, but this time your data is permanently backed up in the cloud and your accountant and bookkeeper can open it up at any time to revise the figures or offer advice.

This approach will be extremely attractive to tech-phobic business owners and accountants the country over. Those benefits are real and significant.

(Another major advantage is that desktop software is much faster than browser-based. Large amounts of data entry are painful on Xero and Saasu due to limitations of browsers.)

The one question I can see is about the syncing process – information has to constantly copy itself from the desktop program to the cloud program. Anyone familiar with DropBox and the like will be familiar with waiting for the little green tick that shows changes have been uploaded to the web.

A sync-based approach means that the online file is not always up-to-date and accessible. The upside: A MYOB-using business owner can “check out” the data file for AccountRight Live so he or she can work on a plane where there is no internet access, for example. Xero and Saasu users can’t do this.

And the downside: while the data file is checked out no changes can be made to the online version, it’s essentially only viewable – and frozen at the point in time at which the data file was checked out.

I’m not sure whether the net impact of checking out files is better for productivity or worse. Internet access in places where businesses view their accounts (at a minimum they just need good mobile phone reception) is better all the time so how much need is there for offline access? And what about the loss in productivity when the bookkeeper wants to make a change to the file but has to wait until it is “checked in” again?

Ultimately, any cloud is better than no cloud, so users will see benefits whichever one they go with.

Who’s right? This is one fight that only the market can decide. It will certainly be interesting to watch.

Pass the popcorn.

P.S. Some notes for the tech-minded. MYOB’s approach mirrors another business-software incumbent, Microsoft. Microsoft’s cloud productivity suite Microsoft Office 365 is intended to be used simultaneously with the standard Microsoft Office desktop suite. One important distinction – Office 365 can be used without desktop software, but MYOB’s online version can’t.

P.P.S. Google is persisting in the dream of web-only apps. Its ChromeBook notebook was intended to run a browser full of applications with only the operating system stored on the notebook itself. It’s had limited success and is still developing the concept. Google’s smartphones and tablets use apps.

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