by Ted Needleman
Despite slowdowns for most other business applications, the market for so-called mid-range accounting software is one place where sales are still running strong.
There are two major reasons. The first is simply growth. Many businesses start with a lower-end accounting application, but as they grow and more employees need to access the different facets of the system, the application starts to strain at the seams. Many entry-level applications are multi-user, but even if your client purchases 100 user licenses, the software’s underlying structures really aren’t designed to support that many users effectively.
Vendor InformationAccpac Pro Series 6.5 Small Business Edition
AccTrak21 v. 10
Best Software BusinessWorks Gold 3
Cougar Mountain Accounting for Windows v. 6.5
Pricing: Single-user -- $1,599; multi-user licenses -- from $2,099, depending on number of users.
Cyma Financial Management System v. 5
Traverse Business Edition v. 10.1
Turning Point 1.3
The second reason for a business outgrowing an entry-level accounting system is an increased need for more complex and comprehensive financial information. The right information, available at the right time, easily justifies the cost of purchasing and migrating to a mid-range solution.One size doesn’t fit all
There are some very real differences between entry-level and mid-range accounting packages. The most obvious differences are price and methods of sale. While the low-end solutions are available in retail stores, the mid-range vendors rely on value-added resellers.
Price is not always the major consideration when looking at the mid-range market. Almost all of these applications are modular. You purchase a System Manager module, which contains the overall administrative core of the system, then add the general ledger as well as any of the necessary ancillary ledgers or modules.
This lets your client fine-tune the system to each company’s specific needs, without wasting time, money and effort installing applications that are not germane to the running and information needs of the business. As their advisor, you’ll play an important part in helping your clients select both the best combination of modules for their needs, as well as possibly actually selling or installing the software for them.
The value-added resellers in mid-range accounting software add value primarily with their expertise in installing and configuring the software, in migrating the business to the new accounting system, and in training and supporting the business in getting the best use from the software.
In fact, the major cost in implementing a mid-range accounting solution is usually not the cost of the software, but the support services that accompany the purchase.
Not all of the mid-range packages that we tested are sold the same way. Some can be purchased directly from the software vendor. Most mid-range software vendors support the reseller channel for several reasons.
One is that the supplier will usually be located locally to your client. If a problem arises, support is available locally, rather than from a vendor that might be across the country, or perhaps even in another country altogether. A local reseller is also in a better position to offer installation assistance.
We didn’t experience any problems in installing the various packages during our testing. At the same time, we also didn’t attempt to configure any of the tested packages to meet a complex account structure, or for multiple consolidation requirements.
Another major benefit to end-users is that most resellers are able to provide a high degree of customization. When your clients are paying several hundred dollars for their accounting systems, it’s reasonable to expect them to have to make some compromises and adapt their operations to the way that the software is designed.
Bump up that investment to many thousands of dollars, however, and there’s no reason why a business should have to adapt. At this price level, the software should be customized to adapt to the needs of the business.
Even more alternatives
We’ve reviewed many of the major mid-range offerings in this roundup. There are also several alternatives that we examined, but that we did not test as vigorously. One new entry straddling the mid-range and entry-level markets is Intuit Inc.’s QuickBooks Enterprise edition, released last year.
Intuit was troubled by many of its QuickBooks users migrating to mid-range applications when they perceived that they had "outgrown" QuickBooks, and so it developed the Enterprise edition.
Accounting Today examined QuickBooks Enterprise Edition several months ago, and we did not include it in this review. If the major reason that your client is looking at a mid-range accounting application is that they have too many users on a current QuickBooks installation, the Enterprise Edition may be a very viable solution.
If, however, they are looking for more sophisticated inventory handling or other advanced functions, they may wish to consider one of the mid-range products reviewed here.
Yet another alternative are the Internet-hosted application service providers. This segment has not taken off as quickly as many in the industry expected. Still, at least two of the vendors in this area, Intacct and Oracle Small Business Suite from NetLedger, offer heavy-duty mid-range accounting applications that are easily accessed over the Internet.
Both services offer lower initial startup costs as compared to an in-house mid-range software package, though there is also an ongoing service charge based on the number of users and number (and types) of applications used. On the plus side, the ASP takes care of data backup and software upgrades and maintenance.
Because of the many issues that distinctly relate to Internet-based applications, Intacct and Oracle Small Business Suite were not included in this review of desktop computer-based systems.
Putting them to the test
Considering just how robust and powerful most of the packages we tested were, it’s surprising to note that all of them run quite nicely on a pretty basic hardware platform. We usually build our own PCs, and for this roundup, we chose to base the system on a Via Mini-ITX form-factor motherboard.
The CPU in this motherboard is Via’s own C3, which is about the equivalent of an Intel Pentium III running at 800 MHz. We dropped a Samsung combo drive into our test system, so it can play DVDs as well as burn CD-R/RW discs at a surprisingly fast speed. A Maxtor 20GB hard disk drive loaded with Windows 2000 Professional provided plenty of space for our needs.
We installed each of the nine packages tested in its single-user form, and ran a variety of tests and edits using the sample data each vendor supplied. All of the applications installed and ran very nicely on our modest hardware platform.
However, your clients may experience a much more complex set-up process, depending on how close their structure is to the default charts and reports supplied with the application. Large companies with a sophisticated network already in place may also need some expert help installing and configuring their packages.
Accpac Pro Series 6.5 Small Business Edition
When it comes to accounting software, Accpac has the base well covered. In the mid-range market, it actually has two very strong product lines, the Advantage Series, and the Pro Series, which we reviewed.
Advantage Series is not reviewed here because that product belongs in the class of the most elite middle-market accounting applications geared above the mid-range sector. However, the product now comes in a Small Business Edition, which could be considered closer to the mid-range. We advise readers interested in mid-range accounting products to contact Accpac for further information on Advantage SBE.
Pro Series is the latest iteration of Accpac’s source-code-available line. As with Advantage, Pro Series is available in several bundles. The Small Business Edition we reviewed includes the System Manager, GL, AR, AP, inventory, order entry, purchase order, and payroll. Job cost, an advanced report writer, and customization are all available as options from an authorized reseller.
Pro Series 6.5 is primarily sold in this bundled format, and is based on Microsoft’s Visual FoxPro database and programming language. Pro Series is a very attractive choice for clients who might require fairly extensive customization, as it comes with the source code for the applications. This allows an experienced FoxPro programmer to fine-tune the applications far beyond what is available through filters and the other settings that are standard in the applications and System Manager.
As we were finishing up the review, Accpac announced the release of Pro Series 7.1. While there are some enhancements, this new product’s major differences are in the pricing and the underlying database structure.
The new 7.1 release will continue to be available in the Visual FoxPro version, but will also add a version that uses Microsoft’s SQL Server. This lets the Pro Series 7.1 easily ramp up to enterprise levels of users if needed.
Also new in the 7.1 release is the availability of purchasing just the modules that your client wants, rather than the entire Small Business Edition bundle. You can still buy the bundled version, but individual modules are available at $795 each.
Pro Series 6.5 is easy to install, and for most users, it should be pretty easy to configure. It provides an attractive interface, and a comprehensive and abundant set of reports. The business status report, which provides a summary of important figures from most of the installed subsidiary ledgers, is particularly useful for managers. The functionality of Pro Series is made even more useful by the availability of source code, though your clients should be very cautious when it comes to modifying an application that’s as important as the accounting system.
AccTrak21 v. 10
When you stop to think about it, our economy has truly become global -- and so have our accounting software vendors. AccTrak21’s headquarters are in Melbourne, Australia, though the company hopes to make a big splash in the U.S. software market.
It seems to be off to a good start, choosing Wayne Harding as its chief executive in the U.S. Harding attained high visibility in the accounting industry as a former key executive at Great Plains (now part of Microsoft), as well as his work with the Information Technology Alliance and service on several American Institute of CPAs committees. Most recently he served as a channel manager for the institute’s CPA2Biz portal. Having him head up the U.S. operations should give AccTrak21 a great deal of immediate credibility.
The company sees accountants as one of its prime sales channels, so it is giving away a fully functioning 10-user copy of the complete AccTrak21 system to any accountant who requests it.
AccTrak21 takes a bit of a different approach than most of the other vendors we reviewed, going with the Sybase ASA database, rather than Pervasive or Microsoft. We didn’t notice any difference in operation during our testing, but we were running the software in single-user, not network, mode.
As with many of the other vendors, pricing is set by the reseller, though AccTrak21 did provide us with a "suggested" set of prices for the software without any support, installation or training. Pricing is per module and per number of users, starting out at just over $500 for a two-user system.
The base system is pretty complete, and includes the System Manager, GL, AP, AR, and cash management. Other modules available include multi-warehouse inventory, sales order, purchase order, bill of materials, several e-commerce modules, and a set of online analysis tools. Version 10 also adds customer relationship management capabilities and integration with Microsoft Office.
The software is nicely organized and seems to have pretty much everything that a mid-range system should provide.
Its analysis capabilities are very well integrated with the accounting program. Since this is a major reason many clients are turning to a mid-range system, AccTrak21 may be just what they are looking for.
However, Acctrak still lacks a well-developed reseller or support channel.
With its aggressive acquisition history, it’s taken some time for Best Software to get all of its ducks in a row. It’s pretty clear now where BusinessWorks Gold stands -- right in the mid-range between Peachtree Software (also a Best Software division) in the entry-level strata, and the MAS products aimed at the upper end of the market.
Best Software is trying to provide a smooth upgrade path from the first-time users of accounting software to really large enterprise installations. It has established a Migration Center to assist its customers and resellers in performing these upgrades. It has also designed BusinessWorks Gold, now in its third release, to be easily configured to accommodate the changing needs of companies making an upgrade into the mid-range market.
As with many of the mid-range offerings, BusinessWorks Gold 3 is available in modules, available either separately or in bundles. A System Manager module is required with any of the other modules to form a basic system. Modules currently available include GL, cash management, AR, AP, payroll, inventory control and purchasing, order entry, and job cost. Other options let you link BusinessWorks Gold with Goldmine’s CRM applications and there’s a module that provides integration with Microsoft Office. The F9 Report Writer is available to extend the customizing capabilities and prepare comprehensive ad hoc reports. Inventory is integrated with purchase order entry, and provides some features for use in light manufacturing environments such as subassemblies, or kitting.
BusinessWorks Gold installed easily, and uses the Pervasive database engine. Best has added a lot of nice refinements in the 3.0 version, including the ability to e-mail forms such as statements and invoices, and the ability to access the accounting system remotely. The vendor also encourages third-party developers to create vertical market applications using BusinessWorks Gold as a base, and can refer you to one of these developers should you have a client who would be best served by a vertical application.
South African software developer Softline has several subsidiaries here in the U.S. One is the well-known AccountMate, with the second being BusinessVision Management Systems. AccountMate has been slightly repositioned to appeal more to the client/server market, with BusinessVision32 targeted solidly at the mid-range. We reviewed the Standard Edition, but this vendor has lots of goodies for the business that needs a bit more than the generic.
Not that many companies will find the "generic" Standard Edition all that limiting. Based on the Pervasive SQL engine, it delivered excellent performance even on the somewhat anemic test platform we configured for this roundup. Unlike some of the other packages we tested, BusinessVision32 requires Windows NT, 2000 or XP Professional. If you will be running the client/server version, you’ll need a dedicated file server, though this server doesn’t really have to be all that highly configured. In fact, our test hardware would have served very nicely in this regard.
The Standard Edition is licensed for five users right out of the box, and it’s easy to upgrade to additional users simply by purchasing a LAN pack that adds additional "seats." A "Limited Edition" of BusinessVision32 provides essentially the same feature set, but in a single-user application that can be easily upgraded to multi-user as the business grows. At the top-end, the SQL-based database engine makes it a smooth transition to client/server functionality, should that be needed.
We liked the clean user interface, and while some of the icons were not particularly intuitive, a help bubble pops up as you move the mouse cursor over them. BusinessVision32 includes a full complement of modules -- System Manager, GL, AR, AP, order entry, payroll, bank reconciliation, and comprehensive purchase order entry. The inventory module provides all of the common costing methods.
There is an excellent selection of reports, and these are easy to customize using filters, so ad hoc reporting can be accomplished as needed. The F9 Report Writer is also available to meet the reporting needs that can’t be accomplished using the standard reports and filters.
BusinessVision32 resellers can do a fair amount of customization for their clients, but it may not be needed. Add-ons and "special editions" designed for vertical applications eliminate much of the need for customization. A "CustomPack" add-on lets you create customer-specific pricing, link documents to accounting accounts, create integrated "workbooks" to supplement the standard data collected by BusinessVision32, and even display a "ticker" of real-time data.
The multi-currency module lets you maintain divisions all over the world, and report in a single currency. The Smart Inventory Browser that’s part of the inventory module lets you locate parts regardless of which warehouse they are held in.
As with all of the mid-range accounting packages reviewed here, pricing of BusinessVision32 applications is set by the reseller, and usually includes installation, training and some ongoing support. Still, with suggested prices for the software starting at about $1,000 for the single-user version, BusinessVision32 should be an affordable mid-range offering even with the "extras."
Accounting v. 7.0
Cougar Mountain Software
Cougar Mountain Software probably doesn’t get quite the respect that it deserves. The vendor built its reputation in the direct-market channel, with thousands of users purchasing the bundle of applications over the years. These days, Cougar Mountain sells both directly and through a growing reseller channel, which provides installation, customization and support.
Cougar Mountain Accounting is modular, with a base product providing GL, AR, AP, order entry, data exchange and report writer modules. Other modules are available, and many clients will probably need at least one of these, and possibly more.
The optional modules include payroll, point-of-sale, multi-location inventory, bank reconciliation, job cost, purchase order, a GL report writer that provides enhanced functionality over the one included with the basic bundle, and an e-commerce add-on. Cougar Mountain also has a nonprofit version of its accounting system, with very similar features.
In some respects, Cougar Mountain Accounting is toward the lower end of the mid-range market. It’s powerful, but unlike some of the other products reviewed here, doesn’t really seem to be designed to scale up to larger enterprises. Still, the software seems robust enough to handle many of the midsized clients that would be attracted to its reasonable price.
That price, though, may be easy to underestimate. The base bundle leaves out a lot of subsidiary ledgers that many companies looking for this class of software will probably want and need. Reports are functional, but not very fancy or as customizable as some of the other products we looked at.
The report writer module, which comes with the base bundle, lets you do some customization, but the increased information requirements that most companies move to the mid-range to get mean that your client will probably have to go for the optional general ledger report writer, or even export the data to Excel for further analysis.
Cougar Mountain Accounting seems to occupy the same market space as Microsoft’s Small Business Manager -- that is, companies that don’t think that an entry-level accounting package will be robust enough to meet their needs, but who don’t want to go full-bore into a "lite" version of an enterprise accounting system.
Fortunately, as the vendor’s long, successful history shows, there are lots of companies in that market space.
Cyma Financial Management System v. 5
Cyma Systems is another of the survivors, having been around for more than 20 years. The Cyma Financial Management System v. 5 is brand new this year, and adds a lot of enhancements to the prior release. The software is built on top of the Pervasive SQL 2000 database engine, so upgrading from a single user to lots of users is simply a matter of changing the version of Pervasive SQL that your client is running.
Cyma also offers a nonprofit version of FMS, so if you have several nonprofit entities in your client mix, you can probably support both kinds of clients through a single reseller.
FMS is a modular system, and consists of a System Manager, GL, AR, AP, payroll, and bank reconciliation. Each module is priced separately, at $495 each in a single-user configuration. Inventory is not a Cyma module, but Cyma has partnered with a third party to provide solutions for distribution and manufacturing companies.
The price is very attractive. We also liked the "eDesk" Cyma added to the last release. This is an attractive front end to the System Manager, and makes it easy to navigate through the software. It also offers 10 Java-based business calculators, including a very handy lease-versus-buy calculator.
There’s nothing very fancy about FMS v. 5. It’s attractive, and the reports are functional, but not as comprehensive as those offered by some of the other products reviewed. The system is compatible with Crystal Reports and the F9 report writers, so you should be able to customize existing reports and produce ad hoc reports if needed. If your client has more extensive needs for data, though, you may want to recommend a different package.
Microsoft Small Business Manager 7.0
Microsoft has been taking a fair amount of flack for Small Business Manager since it was first introduced. Some of this comes from a misunderstanding of the product’s target market, and some comes from an unrealistic expectation of what the product actually provides.
Small Business Manager seeks to be more robust than entry-level applications such as QuickBooks and Peachtree Accounting -- but it really isn’t a full mid-range application.
The "Small Business" appellation pretty much says it all. SBM isn’t designed for enterprise-sized companies. Eventually you might see an upgrade path to other Microsoft accounting applications, but at the present time, it’s pretty much a solo solution.
Microsoft has made some changes in this latest release. Gone is the somewhat quirky interface, replaced by a good-looking and easy-to-use standard drop-down menu system. This menu system is, however, still task-oriented, rather than ordered by subsidiary journal. The left side of the screen shows what options are available in the task.
Installation is easy, and SBM provides data migration tools so your clients can transfer balances and chart-of-accounts information from their current entry-level accounting system.
SBM has a nice collection of applications. The software is not modular, except for payroll, which is an option. Included with the Small Business Manager are financials, inventory, sales, purchasing, banking, and reports. The reports provided are attractive and useful, and can be customized to some extent through the use of filters.
However, SBM lacks the extensive reporting and customization capabilities that most of the products in this roundup provide. Inventory provides the most common methods of costing, but there’s no facility for manufacturing or distribution-type enhancements.
SBM seems to be searching for its niche. It’s neither fish nor fowl, entry-level nor mid-range. It’s nice to look at and nice to use, but it doesn’t seem to offer all that much more utility over products such as QuickBooks or Peachtree, and costs considerably more than either of those popular applications.
Edition v. 10.1
Open Systems is one of the oldest continuously operating accounting software vendors, having first entered the market with software for mini-computers. A much-updated and upgraded version of that original software is still being sold as Open Systems Accounting Software. Traverse is the vendor’s offering for companies that prefer a more graphical approach, and runs under Windows.
In fact, Traverse is a totally Microsoft-based product. The underlying database engine is Microsoft SQL Server -- either the desktop version or the full version of SQL Server, depending on whether you are buying the Business Edition or the Enterprise Edition. We tested the Business Edition.
The use of MS SQL Server makes upgrading from a small to midsized business installation to an enterprise-sized business a very smooth process. We also found the MS SQL Server a bit more difficult to configure than the Pervasive engine used by some of the other products. Again, the reseller will conduct many installations, so this is something one shouldn’t worry about too much.
Traverse has been constantly updated since its original introduction. This latest release, 10.1, adds some significant new capabilities, especially in the area of manufacturing and distribution inventories. Traverse Business Edition consists of a System Manager and one or more modules. The available modules include the standards -- GL, AP, AR, payroll, bank reconciliation, inventory, sales order, and purchase order. Modules for BOM/kitting and various manufacturing functions are available, as are advanced reporting options and several vertical market applications.
Traverse also offers a fixed assets module, something that’s not very common in the mid-market, but which many businesses with complex fixed-asset collections will find a life-saver at tax return time.
We didn’t test the e-business components that are also available as options, but these let your clients set up on-line shopping and customer service that integrate with the accounting applications that are installed.
Traverse is not a new product (though this release is). It’s been around long enough to have a mature polish and plenty of users. What’s nice about Traverse is that it is equally appropriate for both large and small companies, as long as they need a robust and powerful accounting system
Turning Point 1.3
Red Wing Business Systems
Red Wing has gone through some significant changes over the past several years. One was the shift in focus from being primarily a supplier of software for the farming market, to concentrating on the more general accounting software market. The introduction of its Windows-based Turning Point applications in 2001 strengthened this commitment to take the company somewhat beyond its vertical orientation.
In 1991 came the acquisition of Red Wing by Active IQ Technologies, which combined Red Wing, FMS/Harvest, and Champion Business Systems into a single company. The company’s managers recently bought it from Active IQ.
Turning Point hasn’t changed much since it was introduced two years ago, except for some minor upgrades and the introduction of an inventory suite. This supplements the core financial suite, which is the way that Turning Point is primarily sold. The core financial suite includes the System Manager, GL, AR, and AP. The inventory suite includes these core applications, but also adds order entry, purchase orders, and inventory. These three modules are also available separately if you just want to add one or two of them to the core financial suite. Red Wing also has a payroll module as an option.
Installation was easy, and the underlying database is Microsoft’s Visual FoxPro. Red Wing uses Crystal Reports to generate the reports for the applications, so customizing these for ad hoc reporting should be fairly simple. There is also very tight integration with Microsoft Office, and Office applications can be launched from within Turning Point.
The visual approach that Turning Point takes is somewhat unusual, with a left-hand pane that presents a Windows Explorer-like view of the entire system. Clicking on a subsidiary ledger in this window expands the tree to show what tasks and reports are available. This is very similar to the approach that write-up supplier Caseware takes with its applications, and we find it very intuitive to use.
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