Applications that Should Merge

A lot of times, when looking for the ideal software for a particular task, I find that I end up having to choose between two applications: there might be one that has a nice, slick, interface, but another which has the functionality I need. Or perhaps one which is an online app and another which runs on my desktop. Sometimes I reluctantly pick one, other times I'm stuck using two applications. Here is a list of applications I wish could be merged:

Finance Software for OS X

Despite not making much money, we have inordinately complex finances – largely because we run a film company. It hasn’t made money yet, but we need to keep careful track of our expenses, which are in multiple currencies. Unfortunately, the choices for finance software on Mac OS X just aren’t very good. I spent the last 6 hours trying all of them, and the results make me want to cry. Still, so that I don’t feel my day was a total waste, I thought I’d share my findings here for anyone else who might be in a similar situation.

  • Quicken
    • Quicken 2007 is crap (just read the reviews). They’ve been promising a new product since 2008. Now it seems slated for 2010
  • Moneydance
    • This is what we’ve been using for the past few years. It is a solid product, and certainly one of the best options out there right now, but it can be maddenly frustrating at times. Category management is a nightmare, and the program has some major flaws, such as the fact that the formats it imports from are not the same as those it exports to. What led to my 6 hour ordeal today was the inability to import a multiple currency document I had created in the same program. It insisted on importing all the accounts in the file as a single currency… But after looking around, I’m not sure there is anything better.
  • iBank
    • I wanted to like this program, but the fact that the “currency” drop down menu from which I could set the currency for each account was entirely blank (there are multiple choices, just no text appearing to let you know which choice is which), was a major stumbling block. The fact that the demo was limited to 15 min at a time is another major problem. Why not let me use it for a week? And the nail in the coffin was the inability to set up a custom report the way I wanted. There are custom reports, but they are very limited in terms of what you can do.
  • LiquidLedger
    • Lack of custom reporting was the thing that killed LiquidLedger as well. It otherwise seems like a decent enough program.
  • Money
    • Of the three programs with a native Mac OS X look-and-feel (iBank, LiquidLedger, and Money), Money has the nicest user interface, and generates the nicest reports. This would be my favorite if it wasn’t so buggy. Generating a report can crash the program and cause data loss. Also, there is no way to match multiple accounts in an OFX file to individual accounts in Money, making it unusable for downloading my bank data. And even though the GUI is generally nice, there is really no need for CoverFlow in an accounting program… One good thing I have to say is that the customer support is fantastic. I had a lot of back-and-forth with the developers and I’m hopeful that they are working to address these problems.
  • Fortora Fresh Finance
    • Fortora is the only program I found which seems to match Moneydance in terms of overall speed and performance. The interface is terribly ugly, and not particularly pleasant to use, but it does the job. If I wasn’t already using Moneydance I might consider this, but I’m not sure it offers anything more than Moneydance.
  • MoneyWell
    • After writing this report someone suggested I try MoneyWell. I’d tried it a few years ago, but then it was simply a program for balancing your budget using “envelope” budgeting. The interface was awful and it didn’t do what I needed. However, now it has evolved into a full-fledged finance app. It is actually one of the best ones out there, but a couple of flaws keep me from using it. The biggest is probably the fact that it is still designed around envelope budgeting, what it calls “buckets.” This means it is good if your main concern is not spending too much, but not so good if you want to track your previous expenses and make reports. Although the reporting mechanism is in some ways better than the competition, the “bucket” system breaks how categories work on all other finance applications. Another problem is the inability to download exchange rates so they have to be entered manually. That, and the weird decision to make you enter the default currency in the OS X system preferences rather than the application itself. (A problem if you are an expat.) I don’t mean to sound too nagative, because it really is a nice application, but the “bucket” thing just kills it for me – maybe it will work better for you?
  • Others
    • There were a bunch of other programs I tried (Cha-Ching, MoneyGuru, Squirrel, Checkbook Pro, iCompta etc.), but they are so limited and/or buggy that I didn’t think they were worth linking to or discussing.
    • There are also now a bunch of online offerings, such as Mint, MoneyStrands, Wesabe, Buxfer, Geezeo, Yodlee, ClearCheckbook, and Quicken Online, but so far none of them is powerful enough to substitute for desktop software. For one thing, they are quite limited in terms of being able to import and export QIF files – the standard format for moving data between financial software.

Word Processors Suck

Word processors suck. Anyone who has prepared a manuscript for publication will tell you that. I’m also fairly certain that Microsoft is the reason word processors suck. It is because of Microsoft that we are stuck with the “.doc” standard for word processor files, surely one of the worst file “standards” in the history of computers. Even though I knew there were other options out there, I did my thesis in MS Word because I thought that only MS Word would be up to the task of handling a large academic document, with the need to generate a table of contents, bibliography, etc. Boy was I wrong! Anyone who has ever worked on an academic manuscript will tell you that it is right when you need these features most that Word fails on you. You start getting strange formatting errors that are completely opaque and inexplicable. The text just seems to have a mind of its own. When you are trying to meet a deadline this can feel like someone moving your plate away every time you try to take a bite of your food.

I don’t think it was always this way. Word was a decent word processor some time in the distant past (around version 5 or 6). I remember even recommending that other academics use it over the competition (Word Perfect) because it was so much easier to use. But after finishing my thesis I swore off not just Word, but all Microsoft products. You know something is wrong when your flagship product creates deep seated antipathy in your users.

So, what are the alternatives? One is OpenOffice. This is a free, open source, copy of Word. It does a good job of replicating Word, but it seems to replicate all its problems and bloat, and hostility to the user as well. It is as if you chose to sleep in a prison cell because it was free. I used to have hope for OpenOffice, but after needing it for some serious work on a few occasions I think I have to swear that off as well.

Another option might be something called LaTeX, which is a very geeky tool used by people in the sciences to format their document. If you don’t mind looking at a little bit of code interspersed with your text this might be a reasonable alternative. But it is most definitely not WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”). If you were in the sciences and your editors all used LaTeX it still might be OK, but in the social sciences it is not. You still need to give your editors a .DOC or .RTF file in the end, and so at some point you have to convert from LaTeX to .DOC. LaTeX is optimized for producing PDF documents, which is not ideal for collaborative work in the social sciences.

On Mac OS X there is one application which shines above all others when it comes to Word Processing, and that is Mellel. Mellel is WYSIWYG, and it handles styling beautifully. Nothing is unexpected. Mellel also integrates beautifully with OS X bibliographic software like Bookends and Sente. It seems to be an academic’s dream. Except …. Except that it uses its own file format and at so at some point you still need to export to .DOC or .RTF, and the process, while good, is never 100% accurate. Problems get introduced and what you see in OpenOffice or Word is not what you saw in Mellel. When you are trying to format something for a book or journal anything less than 100% is just not acceptable. Like LaTeX, if all you had to give people was a PDF file, it would be great, but that’s not the case. So after writing two academic publications in Mellel, I’ve had enough.

For my next project I will give Nisus Writer Pro a try. It feels a lot like Mellel in many ways. Back in the days of OS 9 my friends swore by it, but I found it difficult to use. But the OS X version has been completely re-written from the ground up, and now uses .RTF as its native file format, which means that you shouldn’t have the problems one finds in LaTeX or Mellel. Integration with bibliographic software is far less slick than Mellel, and that’s disappointing, but it does work pretty well (I tested this last night with Sente). But already I’ve found one problem with Nisus: annotations made via the “notes” tool do not show up as “notes” in OpenOffice. This is also disappointing, but I can live with it for now.

The .RTF file format, used by Nisus is also the one being promoted by Apple as an alternative to .DOC. It is still a crappy format. I hope that there is some kind of a revolution in the future and the whole .RTF/.DOC tyranny is replaced with something better. (And no, .DOCX is not what I’m talking about.) Till then, maybe I’ll give Nisus Writer a try…