Can Intuit's New Mint Save Ailing Quicken?

screengrab of personal finance Web service Mint CNET

Conventional wisdom is that Intuit's acquisition of the personal finance Web service Mint will mean the end of the line for the company's standalone software app, Quicken. Upstart Mint, which is being acquired by Intuit for $170 million, has a personal finance product more in line with the times, with a younger demographic, a working business model and a passionate CEO, Aaron Patzer, who's slated to take over the Quicken product line at Intuit once the acquisition closes. It doesn't look good for the old desktop app, Quicken.

It's a shame that we think of Quicken that way, but it's Intuit's own fault that we've gotten here. The product, according to Intuit legend, started at founder Scott Cook's kitchen table in 1983 as he watched his wife struggle with paying bills. The original Quicken, little more than a DOS-based checkbook and register, over time became an ambitious personal finance suite that handled budgeting, retirement planning, loans, public equities and employee stock options. It became more capable but also more complex, harder to use and much harder to get started with.

More importantly, as Julie Miller, director of corporate communications for the consumer group at Intuit told me, "Quicken made its way through the organization. We shuffled the Quicken business around. That had a direct effect on the quality of the product." You can see the effect on CNET's own reviews. Users hate Quicken. Few products have user reviews scores as low; none of the variations of Quicken from recent years have user reviews garnering more than one-and-a-half stars out of five. (Our official reviews score the products higher.)

Another reason that Quicken suffered: Intuit shifted its focus away from the flagship product to new moneymakers, in particular its small-business product, QuickBooks and its tax software and service, TurboTax. As Miller says, "There were decisions made over time that had the unintended consequence of putting the Quicken business where it was starved for focus and resources."

Finally, though, the light began to dawn at Intuit. Miller: "Our thinking was too limited. We weren't thinking beyond the desktop solution. The way we grow this, we realized, was to look for acquisitions."

Fortunately, while Quicken was alienating users, in 2005 Mint was born. Patzer, who had held several engineering jobs including at Sony (working on the PlayStation) and at Internet start-ups founded the company in his own kitchen table moment when he became frustrated with existing personal finance software apps - like Quicken.

And now the upstart is moving into the big house. When the Mint acquisition closes, Patzer will be vice president and general manager of the personal finance group at Intuit, which will include Mint as well as Quicken. (TurboTax will stay with Patzer's new boss, Dan Maurer, senior vice president of the Intuit consumer group.)

What will Patzer do with the ailing Quicken product line? While he hasn't taken the role officially yet - the acquisition has yet to close - already we can see that there may be a few conflicts as the two products come under unified management. Ultimately I believe this will be good for personal finance users although I expect a few rough years for Intuit employees and their customers, too. Here are some points of conflict:

Quicken Online versus Mint: Patzer told me, when he came in to be interviewed for a recent Reporters' Roundtable podcast, that Quicken Online, Intuit's existing Web-based personal finance products and its competitor to Mint, will "go away" sometime after the companies merge. "We have four personal finance code bases," he said, referring to Mint, Quicken Online, Quicken for the Desktop and Quicken for the Mac. He made it clear that he sees it as inefficient to maintain them all.

Miller told me more recently that Mint will be seen as a "customer acquisition engine" at Intuit. (To decipher: She probably means that the free online personal finance site will be kept feature-light to encourage users who want more capability to pay for the full desktop version of Quicken.) And compared with Mint, she said, Quicken Online will be "more connected to the desktop experience."

Quicken for the Mac: At MacWorld 2009 in January, Scott Cook, now chairman of Intuit's executive committee, handed me a copy of the beta version of Quicken for the Mac, then called Quicken Financial Life. The product is still not out. Miller told me it's scheduled to be released in February 2010. Based on my talk with Patzer, I strongly doubt he will devote resources to its separate code base. Furthermore, Quicken Mac will not be able to read and write files from Quicken for Windows. I gather the conversion code is yet to be completed, since Miller called it "a top priority," not an existing feature. She also said the conversion of data from Windows to the Mac version will be a one-way trip. Patzer has indicated to me that his vision is to give consumers access to their data no matter what platform they are on. A locked-in financial application like Quicken Mac doesn't fit with this world view.

The Quicken code base overall: While Patzer has yet to take the reins at Intuit's Quicken group, he's already thinking about unifying the code bases of the various personal financial products that will be under his purview. He's considering developing a cross-platform version of Quicken on Adobe Air, not just because it's one code base that can run on Windows and the Mac but because it's easier to make a version that integrates with the Web. Patzer admits that "getting up to feature parity on an Air app will take years," though.

Quicken's enforced upgrades: Quicken "sunsets" its desktop applications every three years. If you're using an older version of Quicken, it will still function on the desktop, but its ability to access online information, like stock prices and bank balances, will end. Intuit does this so it can focus its development and maintenance on newer versions and shifting standards for online financial services, I'm told. Skeptics believe it's so Intuit can squeeze upgrade dollars out of locked-in users. Regardless of the reason, it angers users who are forced to upgrade their software even if they're satisfied with it. Miller told me that Intuit "will continue its sunset policies." But Patzer told me that "we might go to a subscription model," adding that it's "speculation," as he's not yet on the job. The key point is that he's open to examining the sunset practice even if the existing Intuit management has not considered doing so.

The good news: Assuming Patzer can exercise control over the combined Mint/Quicken product lines, the best possible outcome for customers will be a personal finance suite that exists online for those users who want it, on the desktop for those who don't and in both places at once as well as on mobile devices for the more flexible consumers. The desktop product will get easier to use (as Mint is), but the online version will get more features as well as the capabilities to pay bills and do other transactions (as Quicken allows). Miller also said that TurboTax Online and Mint will get integrated although not likely in time for the coming tax season.

All this is great, but in the short term I fear greatly for Quicken desktop users. As Patzer said, integrating the products will take years, especially if a rewrite of Quicken is part of the plan. Recall that Miller said that Quicken has been bounced around for years. This acquisition and change of leadership is yet another bounce. While under Patzer the product may finally have a loving home, it will take time for it to settle in. I will avoid Quicken 2011.

At least, Quicken 2010, just released, seems to be a solid if unspectacular yearly upgrade of the Windows Quicken legacy product. I use Quicken 2008 (I've been using the product line overall since 1989) and will be moving to Quicken 2010 to manage my own finances. I also find myself using Mint more and more; it works well alongside Quicken. Assuming I'm not forced to by sunset policy, I am fine with waiting a few years to upgrade Quicken itself again until Patzer puts his mark on the product.
By Rafe Needleman

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