Microsoft on the Money with new financial software

by Alan Zisman (c) 2002
First published in Business in Vancouver,  Issue # 637 January 8 - 14, 2002, The High Tech Office column

The new year is the start of a fiscal year for many of us and a good time to start off right with software to keep track of income, expenses and investments.

The home financial-software market is dominated by two products, Intuit's Quicken and Microsoft's Money. While Microsoft has challenged Intuit ever since a failed attempt to buy the company in the early 1990s, this is one of the few areas where the software giant has failed to dominate: Quicken has about four times as many users as MS Money.

Both programs have new versions for the new year, each expanded far beyond their original cheque-register features. This week, a look at challenger Microsoft Money 2002 Canadian Edition (about $90).

Count on 20 minutes or so for set-up as you enter personal and financial information. This time is well spent, however, as the information you enter is used to get your accounts up and running and to optionally schedule online bill payment. Users moving from Quicken will find that Money does a good job of converting that program's records.

Mac-users, however, are out in the cold. Unlike Quicken, Money is available for Windows only.

At start-up, the program resembles a Web site. In fact, it installs Internet Explorer (if needed). Nicely, this Web page can be customized, making it easy to jump to the modules you most often work with.

Also nice are the investment strategy tools. The program's Lifetime Plan helps create a long-term financial plan that includes major life events such as home buying, sending children to school, and retirement. What-if scenarios make it easy to try out different investment strategies, and see the long-term implications. 

With its links to Microsoft's Web browser, Internet integration is built-in. In the background, the software can connect to bank or broker on-line, downloading bank statements or stock prices, even without formally opening Money. Users can set the frequency of these updates, or turn them off entirely. The MoneySide module can display financial information from your Money data while you're online, the better to make decisions about shopping, investing and bill paying. You can drag data such as credit card numbers from the module into your browser. Microsoft assures us that no financial data is sent to them or to other Web sites from the program, without the user's knowledge.

For much of Money's Web integration, such as the Background Banking and MoneySide features, users will need to sign on with Microsoft's Passport service. Passport, which creates a single authenticated sign-on to a range of Web services, is convenient but does involve sending personal information to Microsoft. Privacy advocates and security experts have criticized it. Even if Passport is hacked, however, user bank accounts and other critical data are not at risk. That information remains locked in your computer's hard drive. Despite all the money management features, don't count on Money to do your taxes. Both Money and Quicken can be used to export data to dedicated tax preparation programs (or to your accountant); neither actually prepares a tax return.

Money has grown up since its early days as a Quicken-wannabe. This newest version is well worth a look either by first-time users or Quicken users wanting a change. There's also a $50 Basic edition that can be purchased on its own, or bundled in with other Microsoft packages such as the works suite. Money data can be shared with pocket computers from Compaq, HP and other manufacturers running Pocket Windows, and can be stored online on Microsoft Network. There's a free 60-day trial version for download. 

Next week: How does the new version of the champion, Quicken, compare to Money's aggressive challenge? 

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan