Software Benchtest – Desktop decider

Packaged accounting systems are the raison d’etre for entry-levelsoftware accounting packages. investment in computer technology. But, despite advances in product functionality, the real choice is limited to a handful of vendors.

Sage and Pegasus immediately spring to mind, but Megatech’s TAS Books has carved out an enviable reputation for meeting customer need. Relatively new entrant Exchequer is also trying its hand in the entry-level market, building on its existing reputation for client/server applications.

The pressure to deliver increased functionality, combined with the complexity of working with today’s graphical environments, means the development bar is continually raised. In addition, price competition at the entry level is so intense that, in real terms, software prices have fallen steadily over the past few years.

From the customer’s standpoint, today’s packaged applications are incredibly powerful in comparison to their predecessors. But the flip side of that particular coin is that new users who wish to fully exploit the capabilities of today’s products need to learn a lot more than was the case even a couple of years ago.

Today’s accountant is under increasing pressure to help clients understand their figures, so the more the client can do to construct the basics, the more cost-effective the professional person’s time becomes. That pressure is compounded by the fact that today’s packages are capable of sophisticated analysis and reporting.

Sorting out which product provides the client with the best value for money, however, is a case of examining what the vendor has on offer and seeing how that fits in with the business need. And at this point, it is worth issuing a word of warning. Some vendors have better marketing machines than others, but that is not synonymous with best functional fit.

Sage Line 50

Currently at version 4.1, Line 50 is Sage’s mainstream product. It attracts a lot of attention for its whizzy appearance and the fact that it closely follows Microsoft’s presentation style.

Due for a major upgrade in a few weeks, Line 50 straddles both the older world of Windows 3.x and the newer Windows 95. This has allowed Sage to offer its existing customers an upgrade path but without necessarily experiencing the pain of changing hardware.

Today, arguments about specific Windows version are not as relevant, as Microsoft has ditched Windows 3.x and has sidelined Windows 95 in favour of NT as the platform of choice for the future. From Sage’s development perspective, this will mean rewriting large chunks of its applications as it has a lot of legacy code to eliminate – a process that is ongoing.

From a functional perspective, Line 50 is comprehensive with nice touches that are at times marred by unnecessary restrictions. You can design your own stationery for invoice layout, for instance, but the work needed to complete this work can be frustrating.

The invoice design templates, for example, have several fixed placeholders that interfere with the design screen. A fully customised invoice takes a lot of work to both check and re-check print positioning – and this is especially true when formatting for ink-jet or laser printers.

Line 50’s report generator is based on Crystal Reports. This is a sophisticated module, but even Seagate Software, Crystal’s author, would concede that once you get a few inches below the product’s surface it can be tough going. In addition, Sage uses product-specific acronyms to define the way items are sorted. So, apart from getting used to the vagaries of the product, users need to understand a new breed of software jargon.

Line 50’s bank reconciliation has drawn criticism because it is single-item specific, so it cannot handle multiple items on a single paying-in slip. For users, this can be confusing because it means manually grouping the individual items from the bank statement back to the on-line reconciliation feature. The good news is that Sage has finally listened to these complaints and will fix this feature in the forthcoming release.

These three bugbears apart, Line 50 offers a good-looking interface, although there are times when one wonders whether the style police went berserk. For example, it is patronising to show words and figures on a facsimile cheque. Is the assumption that people cannot read figures alone?

On the other hand, the music paper-style of displaying information in customer records makes for easy account information identification.

EMU-handling using triangulation will be added in the next release to replace existing multicurrency features for European currencies moving to the euro. In the next release, Sage plans to beef up non-accounting features such as the contact manager and task bar.

Sage chief technology officer Dave Errington says accounts packages of the future will be part of wider systems. This is a reflection of enterprise resource planning theories percolating to entry level. There is no reason why accounting information, for instance, cannot form the basis for a discussion about sales activities and marketing plans.

In this context, the contact manager coming in the next edition of Line 50 will allow users to record full details of their clients and contacts and allow them to charge for the time they expend on them – a boon for service industries. Also, task manager is being improved to provide a wider set of functions, and system navigation is being enhanced through the use of list boxes.

Disappointingly, Sage has still not made its mind up about what it wants to do about the Internet or on-line banking links. Errington places great emphasis on these issues in his forward thinking, but has to confront technical riddles related to coding for bank security requirements and is still waiting to see which Internet standards will become dominant.

Line 50 is a market-leading solution and Sage is demonstrating a genuine desire to listen to users through the improvements that will come in the next release.

Professionals who become members of Sage’s Accountants Club enjoy the additional benefit of a strong community of support.

Tas Books for Windows 95/NT

Megatech, author of TAS Books, relies entirely on direct marketing to sell its product but has failed to capitalise on electronic distribution.

It does not have an Internet commerce site and limited marketing bedevils Megatech. In addition, the company has never sold the product at a price that truly reflects its worth. At an entry price of #99 and a 60-day money-back guarantee, buyers cannot lose. But, as a consequence, TAS Books is sometimes perceived as an also-ran, despite winning a number of BASDA awards and being personally endorsed by accounting package guru Dennis Keeling.

This lack of marketing or positioning vision is a pity, because the product is very good. Designed entirely from scratch as a 32-bit application, TAS Books for Windows hits the spot in a number of key areas. It has a business-like rather than a fancy feel, but that should not deter buyers from evaluating the power that comes with it.

At the time of going to press, TAS Books for Windows was entering production of version 3.13. While this review refers to some of the promised new features, buyers will need to confirm the precise nature of the functionality when they see the new product.

TAS Books was originally designed as an accounting system that retains the ease of use associated with character-based products yet provides some of the graphical touches that Windows can bring. For instance, the system allows data-entry clerks to choose keyboard-only or mouse-entry methods.

This alternative data-entry feature answers a special criticism of Windows-based accounting packages. The way that Windows ‘types ahead’ makes it too slow for most data-entry clerks. But Megatech has solved that problem.

All forms have bold-type fields which can be used to search for specific data. Function keys can also be used to search for data.

The new version promises advanced sorting and listing via the F2 key.

It will list all records in the system for the field you are in and allow a selection from that list. Data can then be sorted by clicking on the field heading, and the resulting look-up tables can be further customised by selecting additional fields. For example, one might wish to quickly view turnover year to date or margin year to date.

Users can drill down from almost anywhere – sales daybook, nominal account or even a point on a graph to an original transaction. Users can see all facets of the transaction, including double entry, VAT allocation, which payment paid the invoice, even any other invoices paid with the same remittance.

Once the original data has been located, users can explore related data.

For example, it is possible to find out who else bought the same product, which other products the customer bought, which marketing activity produced the sale, and so on.

The Account Processor allows users to change original transactions. Professionals who throw up their hands in horror at the thought should be comforted.

The audit trail procedures are not eliminated. The processor merely allows the user to do what accountants have done for years by letting them apply a form of electronic Tipp-Ex to mistakes.

Marketing analysis codes give the user the ability to enter a marketing code with each order. At any point in time, users can see how sales are generated – for example, from referrals, phone book adverts or multiple-list mailshots. In the new release, users will be able to look at the lifetime spend of a customer.

TAS Books offers a great deal to any market-conscious business and in addition it has appeal outside the strict definition of an accounting product. You won’t get salesmen banging on the door, but as a mature product with an impressive feature set and a money-back guarantee – it has a lot going for it.

Exchequer Enterprise Euro

Exchequer Software is another of those vendors that has been quietly beavering away, creating a relatively small but loyal following of its own.

Counting among its customers illustrious companies such as Netscape and Heinz, Exchequer has a presence in South Africa and Australia, and overseas sales now account for some 25% of all income. Although Exchequer is something of a well kept secret, it achieves 60% of current sales through a small dealer network.

Unfortunately, its product is let down by almost non-existent marketing.

Its website provides only the barest details, although attention is given to the requirements of the professional accountant.

While it offers a full client/server application under the moniker Enterprise Global, it is possible to dive into waist-deep water with Exchequer’s entry-level Enterprise Euro.

This is a standalone package that includes the core modules of sales, purchase and general ledgers, along with a cash book and invoicing. Other modules, including sales-order processing, purchase-order processing and inventory, can be bought as add-ins. As its name suggests, Enterprise Euro can handle EMU transactions using the triangulation specification.

Exchequer is notable for offering advanced features in its applications for several years that it has only recently started to make a noise about.

It boasts mature drill-down features that come in a number of forms. For example, one can click on a ledger and simply start drilling away – to the transaction-entry detail level. Or, related transaction information can be accessed via the ObjectDrill button. This is a feature others refer to as ‘drill around’. It is useful because it allows the enquirer to ask wider questions of the underlying data rather than being restricted to a hierarchical drilling method.

Exchequer has an astonishingly quick OLE 2 server, so it will connect to just about anything. It will seamlessly extract transactions from mainframes and could be used – as in Netscape – as a departmental or small subsidiary product, sending information back to other systems.

It has dynamic read/write links for budgeting with Excel. Provided one is careful to understand the implications for the system, a tremendous amount of time can be saved. Report design is all drag-and-drop, which is just the way it should be for a modern system.

Exchequer uses the btrieve database engine which some might say is old hat. Yes, it is – but the vendor is in good company: Sage still uses btrieve, as do many others. This is because it is quick, reliable and, because it has been around a long time, it is stable and moderately scalable. On a full-blown Exchequer system, users can have up to 48 concurrent connections: plenty for an accounts department.

Like TAS Books, Enterprise emulates the DOS keyboard for data entry.

The only major gripe is that the screens are garish in the extreme. Whoever designed the colour palette must have taken a cue from a Zandra Rhodes pattern book of the late 1970s. Exchequer says the design helps people to see what is important. But surely this could be achieved with a less psychedelic colour scheme.

Price should not be a show-stopper, but potential buyers might baulk at Exchequer’s tag of #2,600. But a terrific amount of functionality can be added to the basic product as the business develops through a seamless upgrade path to Exchequer’s Global range. At the basic level, though, inventory control should be included. It is a basic function these days, and leaving it out is an error. Dennis Howlett is a freelance journalist


MPower is the long-promised 32-bit application from Pegasus that is designed to seize the upper end of the market from its main UK rival, Sage.

MPower will replace Opera – a Windows ‘screen-scrape’ of a worn-out DOS product that should have been retired years ago. Originally promised for June or July, MPower is not now expected until October. Copies have been put out for ‘beta testing’ with selected users, but Pegasus was not ready to show the product to Accountancy Age. It also reported that the first commercial release will not include a cashbook module.

Nevertheless, Pegasus has stated that the new product design, which is based entirely on SQL Server 7.0 and Windows NT, will allow third-party companies to base vertical applications of their own around it. MPower will use the Microsoft Outlook look and feel, so users of Microsoft Office will quickly become familiar with it.

However good MPower promises to be, there are larger open-ended questions.

Pegasus is supporting three different product lines. So, even though Pegasus has a general leaning towards manufacturing and distribution systems, it faces the challenge of supporting a sprawling collection of code. And how will existing Capital and Opera users be able to migrate to the next generation product? These questions need answering urgently – along with a date for that cashbook module.

Related reading