The 2008 version of Microsoft Office Accounting blurs the line between traditional packaged accounting software running on a Windows PC and Web-based software (or SaaS--Software as a Service--as it's known in industry speak). Both are integrated in the Office Accounting menu, which can be customized so an accounting firm may offer enhanced services to its clients.
Office Accounting 2008 is also better for neophytes than its predecessor was. Getting started with the accounting app is easier--especially if you currently use an Excel spreadsheet to track your business finances. New business templates are available to set up accounts for particular types of businesses, from retail to construction.
A new online Resource Center offers links to video tutorials (to help you learn more about program operations), general business tips, a community bulletin board where other users can share questions and answers, and more.
Since debuting three years ago, Office Accounting has always offered great integration with Word, Excel, and other Microsoft Office applications, allowing you to use forms and reports created in Office. Integration is even better in the latest version: The program can now import virtually any Excel data, including accounts, transactions (such as invoices and vendor bills), and listings (such as inventory products and customers).
Also new this year is Spanish-language support for Latino businesses. You can mix languages, too--for example, viewing Spanish accounting menus while preparing customer invoices in English.
Closer Communication With Your Accountant
Some of the new features in Office Accounting 2008 seem designed to convince accountants to move their small-business clients to Microsoft's app (as opposed to using archrival Intuit QuickBooks). Many small businesses do not employ a professional accountant, instead relying on a public accounting firm to help them prepare year-end financial statements and tax returns. Office Accounting introduces innovative features to improve communications between an external accountant and a client.
An accounting firm can now integrate portions of its Web site into the Office Accounting menu. For example, an accountant might offer reminders of tax payment due dates, an online newsletter, and links to accounting services for specialized areas such as payroll processing.
These accountant add-ons are specified in an XML file. Modifying this file requires some technical expertise, but Microsoft says it will soon offer a free downloadable utility to simplify creating and modifying the XML file.
An accountant can develop one or more customized Business Templates for a specialized company configuration and can create a standard chart of accounts suitable for clients in specific industries. The accountant can then export the custom template and send it to a client to help the client get started more quickly.
The app also enables a business to send a copy of its electronic books to its accountant, who can make financial adjustments and correct entries. This accountant transfer capability is available in most other small-business accounting apps (including QuickBooks) as well.
Free Ad-Supported Version
Office Accounting Express 2008, a basic version of the application aimed at new and home-based businesses, is a free download from Microsoft's Ideawins. Express can track income and expenses, but it doesn't manage inventory, so it isn't suitable for businesses that sell products. This free version displays advertisements.
Office Accounting Professional 2008 ($200, up $50 from the price of last year's version; upgrades $150) adds inventory management, job tracking, sales and purchase orders, and fixed assets. It's aimed at small businesses with up to 25 employees. Businesses that outgrow Professional can upgrade to a more capable accounting app in Microsoft's Dynamics product line.
Microsoft plans to launch a Professional 3-User edition ($500) and a Professional Plus edition ($300) next year; Professional Plus will add a one-year subscription to a payroll calculation service, along with an eBay service that can help quickly list products for online sale.
Is Office Accounting Right for Your Business?
Office Accounting offers an interesting alternative to Intuit's QuickBooks. The multicurrency support in Microsoft's app makes it a good fit for businesses involved in product import and export. The tight integration with Word and Excel should encourage businesses that currently track financial records in those apps to graduate to a real accounting system.
Despite the $50 price hike for the Professional edition, Office Accounting remains reasonably priced for what it delivers. A free 60-day trial lets businesses try it without financial risk.
Richard Morochove is an IT consultant and writer. Send him questions about using technology in your connected small to midsize business via e-mail. PC World may edit your query and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.