Hey you, get off of my cloud!

There’s a war raging right now amongst accounting software providers. The spoils are potentially massive, and as in any war, the propaganda campaign is almost as important as the actual fighting.

Hopefully it’s pretty clear by now that we think the future of the accounting practice lies in collaboration – between accountant and client – using a single file for data entry and report preparation. So we’ve put our future in the hands of Xero.

But this isn’t an exclusive relationship. We’re free to see other people. We believe in many cases Xero is the perfect accounting solution for businesses in Australia. But we don’t want to force a square peg into a round hole. There may be any number of reasons why a client may not want or need Xero. Perhaps they already have a solution they are comfortable with, or maybe there are some features that they must have that are not yet readily available in Xero. Whatever the reason, it’s not our intention to compel our clients to use Xero where they don’t want it or it won’t suit.

To that end, we had the opportunity to trial an alternative ‘cloud’ solution a couple of weeks ago. This product is touted as being ‘2nd generation cloud’. In this ‘2nd generation’ world, Xero and others are supposedly ‘1st generation cloud’, requiring a constant internet connection and possibly a stripped down feature-set to make the experience browser friendly. ‘2nd generation cloud’ installs fully functional desktop software locally and syncs data files to a central online repository when it can. The benefit lies in the fact that a user can continue to work offline, when internet access isn’t available, using a suite of software that is far more feature rich.

A few more happy workers on their way to the cloud.

Or so says the propaganda. There’s a difference though between the official account of proceedings and the reality of the frontline. What follows is a real-life story of one recent battle we had with ‘2nd generation cloud’.

Let’s set aside for now the general experience of many that syncing type solutions traditionally cause problems. If you’ve ever sync’d anything, be it your contacts or Evernote data or whatever, you know that it’s often a recipe for losing information. Let’s even allow for the fact that this was a trial and so perhaps there were still some bugs to be ironed out. We still ended up with a pretty clear picture of where the future of the cloud lies.

In short, our morning went something like this (and make no mistake – it did take an entire morning to sort this out):

  1. Received an email inviting us to be added to our client’s company file.
  2. Clicked a link to download the latest software to be installed.
  3. Downloaded and installed the software, but there was no way to access the client file online.
  4. Called the client, then downloaded and installed a different version.
  5. Could now see how to access online data generally, but still could not see our client’s file.
  6. Called support and it turned out that we still did not have the right version – we had 2012.0 and we needed 2012.7. The correct version was not actually available for public download, so we had to download and install yet another version from an email link provided exclusively to us.
  7. Over two hours and a GB of data later, we were able to access the file and start working.

2nd generation offices now have two phones. Go crazy!

Versions? Installation? Really? One of the things we’re desperate to free ourselves from is the constant productivity drain of wrestling with different versions. The software provided by the two biggest players in the Australian market are updated frequently, and each update requires a new installation to be able to access your client’s data. There are even times where you seem to have the same version as your client and still can’t open their data file. Each mid-year release or service pack requires an updated data file that will not work in any other version. I’m not sure we’ve ever totally understood why the versioning in SME accounting products has to be so specific. It’s like getting a Word document that has been created in Office 2003 and not being able to open it in any other version and even worse, not even being able to open it in Word 2003 if the creator has installed a minor service pack and you haven’t! This endless versioning cycle and the restrictions that come with it is something that costs accountants money in lost time. The cloud promises to put an end to this by having everyone on the latest version, all the time. Or it should.

And what happens if I’ve borrowed a computer or I’m working from a tablet? This isn’t how it’s meant to be! We’re no experts, but this doesn’t seem like cloud to us.

Calling this ‘2nd generation cloud’ is like calling regular postage ‘2nd generation e-mail’. Sure, today’s mail systems are far more ‘electronic’ and take advantage of the internet and other connectivity advances to improve processes and add services. But e-mail it ain’t!

And neither is this ‘cloud’. Call it 2nd generation desktop if you like, but not cloud. It uses online storage. It allows a degree of collaboration. But this is not what the cloud is meant to be – at least as far as we’re concerned.

Another ‘world’s first’…

If you’ve ever been to Adelaide, you may know that we have this crazy one-way freeway that changes direction half way through the day. It allows traffic to come into the city in the morning, then funnels it out in the afternoon, but it only ever goes one way at a time. It’s an infuriating construction, mainly because it always seems to be going in the wrong direction whenever you want to use it. The truth of the matter is most likely that the funds were not available at the time to do the job properly, and so we ended up with half a freeway. In typical government spin though, it was hailed as the ‘world’s first reversible freeway’ – or superlatives to that effect. Perhaps there was a reason why nobody else in the world had done it? Marketing hype can’t mask reality once you start using a product.

Spin it however you like, but as far as we’re concerned, there are no ‘generations’ when it comes to the cloud. There’s cloud, and then there’s everything else.