« Getting out the vote | Main | Equal prizes »

Quick fix

The other day, I noticed that the personal finance software I've been using since January 2, 1993 (under DOS!), Quicken, had started responding to requests to download stock quotes this way: "Quicken was unable to process the information in the file that was downloaded. We recommend that you try again." (It's their version of Sisyphus's torture: trying again produces the same message.)

It must be a couple of years since I started seeing warnings that Quicken was going to disable quotes in older versions of its software. My version, 2000, probably should have stopped functioning in 2004. But I'd begun to think it would never happen.

I recognize that by this time I am a valueless customer to Quicken's maker, Intuit, I tried the 2002 version (mostly so I could synch with Pocket Quicken on the Palm) and hated it; I found useless the 2005 version that came on a laptop. Intuit's idea for turning me into a valuable one is apparently to force me to upgrade to Quicken 2007. Even if 200x versions had been good, this wouldn't be a perfect idea: In 2005 Intuit dropped its UK product, and while its US product now handles multiple currencies, what about VAT? Worse, in two (or three) years' time I will be forced to do the whole thing again because of Intuit's sunset policies.

This is, of course, an entirely more aggressive approach than most software companies take. Even Microsoft, which regularly announces the dates on which it will stop supporting older software, doesn't make it inoperable. It's odd remembering that we used to cheer for Intuit, partly because it was a real pioneer in usable interface design, and partly because in the 1990s it was one of very, very few companies that had to compete with Microsoft and succeeded.

The bad news is that this is likely to be what the future is going to look like. Cory Doctorow, who has spent years following Hollywood's efforts to embed copy protection into television broadcasts and home video systems, has warned frequently that the upshot will be that things unexpectedly stop working. TiVo owners have already seen this in action: the company proposed to disable the 30-second skip popular among the advertising avoidant, and also in some cases can how long you can save programs and whether you can make copies.

I'm sure there are other examples that don't spring instantly to mind. It's part of the price of a connected world that the same features that allow benefits such as downloaded information and automatic software updates give the manufacturers options for changing the configuration we paid for at their own discretion. If these were hackers instead of software companies, we'd say they'd installed a "back door" into our systems to allow them to come in and rummage around whenever they wanted to, and we'd be deploying software to disable the back door and keep them out. Instead, we call these things "features" and apparently we're willing to pay software companies to install them.

All software has flaws; part of learning to use it involves figuring out how to work around them. When I bought it, Quicken was one of only two games in town; the other was Microsoft Money, and its notable how few competitors they have. Quicken did a far better job, at least at the beginning, of understanding that personal finance software only really works for you if you can integrate it into the world of banking and credit cards you already live in. Intuit pioneered downloading bank and credit card data. Had I ever learned to use it right, it would have prepared my VAT returns for me.

But I never really did learn to use it right, and it's gotten worse over time as the software has disimproved (as the Irish say). The Quicken files on my computer have become hopelessly lost in confusion over split transactions that don't make sense, invoices that may or may not have been paid; mortgage interest I've never been able to figure out correctly; and stock spin-offs it's adamantly put in the wrong currency. Early on, Intuit created a product called Quick Invoice that did exactly what I wanted: it wrote invoices, simply and reliably, in about five seconds. This functionality was eventually subsumed into Quicken, which made it laborious and unpleasant. My least favorite quirk was that its numbering was unreliable.

I now realize that I had come to hate the software so much that I more or less stopped dealing with it other than for invoices and stock quotes. The original purpose for which I bought it, to save money by keeping track of bank balances had long since been forgotten.

So, I say it's spinach and I say to hell with it. It will cost me at least $50 more than the price of Quicken 2007 to buy a decent piece of invoicing software and something like, say, Moneydance, and quite a few hours to start over from scratch. But at least I know that two years hence I won't be doing it again.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)