And the dealbreakers that keep others from moving.
Of all the industries vulnerable to Google’s attack on the Microsoft-dominated business productivity suite market, accounting would have been thought the least open to change.
Accountants and their customers spend many hours wandering through pages of spreadsheets, calculating balances and projecting cash flow. Such champions of Excel would surely be the fiercest defenders of the Microsoft Office empire.
However, a growing number of accountants have shifted their IT systems from all Microsoft to mostly Google Apps. Several accountants in Australia and the UK whose firms had made the shift to Google told BoxFreeIT they had been happy with the move and were gradually weaning themselves from Excel to the lesser-featured Google Spreadsheet.
“We have Excel mainly because it’s the mainstay but we barely use it except for opening client documents,” says Guy Pearson, director of Sydney-based Interactive Accounting. “It’s good to have it as a backstop.”
Google Apps accountants appear to have one common goal – to end their reliance on in-house servers. This is driving a move away from Microsoft software in general. Even though Microsoft has a cloud service in Office 365, it is complementary to the desktop software rather than a replacement of it.
“We’re trying to get rid of (Microsoft) Office. My aim is to throw out the server once tax is released and have everything (software) online,” Pearson says.
UK-based Dashboard Accounting shifted to Google Apps 15 months ago and has found that it needed Excel “quite rarely now”, says partner Ian McCall. Two programs, SalesForce CRM and Adaptive Planning financial forecasting software, only export to Excel. Most other functions are now done in Google Spreadsheet.
“Over the time we’ve been using Google their spreadsheet has come on in leaps and bounds and has the functionality we need 95%+ of the time,” McCall says.
One of the greatest attractions of Google Apps was the ability to work simultaneously on documents, whether with colleagues or customers.
“Version control used to be a nightmare, now staff can all work on a shared document, simultaneously if necessary,” McCall says.
Other benefits related to the nature of a cloud-based suite, such as the ability to access documents from anywhere. Accountants were happy to wave goodbye to the days of VPNs (virtual private networks) to on-premise servers.
“We used to use a VPN with Microsoft Exchange and Sharepoint. Logging onto that was a nightmare from outside the office,” McCall says.
While smaller firms have been quicker to take up Google Apps, it is finding an audience among larger firms too.
Hayes Knight, a 330-staff firm, has moved nearly 50 people in its Sydney office to Google Apps. If all goes to plan it will roll out Google Apps to its other eight offices, says Ben Granger-Holcombe, director of Cloud Adapt, the IT services company managing the migration.
Granger-Holcombe says he expected accountants to be resistant to moving to Google Apps. “I thought that accountants were the channel that we wouldn’t really target. When we move big organisations over (to Google Apps) there is a subset, usually the finance department, that are so embedded in their macros that they do need a version of Excel,” he says.
In one case a 200-seat company moved to Google Apps and bought 10 OEM licences of Microsoft Office for the accounting department. “When we are saving them 40-50 percent on (the cost of providing) email and productivity they really don’t mind,” Granger-Holcombe says.
Cloud Adapt believes there is so much potential among accountants that it is creating a dedicated solution for the accounting industry based on Google Apps and Xero.
Next page: Google Apps’ shortcomings that hold back others
Far from perfect
Despite the interest in Google Apps, there is still a large feature gap with Microsoft Office. Google Apps lags by a long way in Word and PowerPoint, and to a lesser extent Excel, in the number and complexity of features.
Accountants may be willing to forgo the bells and whistles in their newsletters and presentations, but letting go of their primary business tool is not easy for some.
Steph Hinds, director of Newcastle-based Growthwise, says the firm is trying to choose on a cloud-based productivity suite. Hinds recommends Google Apps to her clients but can’t quite commit to moving her own company yet.
“That’s our hardest decision at the moment. Google Apps doesn’t quite cut it. Everything else in the Google Apps store is fine, it’s just Excel,” Hinds says.
“My take on it is that we don’t have a choice, we need to use Excel. There’s nothing out there that will be able to replace it. Possibly we might see some applications that will do what-if analysis, but I have Excel open every day without fail.”
Areas where Google Apps falls short include complicated financial scenarios and forecasting, Hinds says.
While accounting programs are becoming more sophisticated at manipulating financial records, most aren’t able to predict scenarios.
“If I wanted to say to a client you’re 5 percent behind in your sales and there’s a 10 percent blow-out in costs, and this is where you’re going to be at the end of the year, you can’t do that in Xero,” Hinds says.
In one case Hinds was reviewing the financing for a client who wanted to buy and rent a $6 million building. She had to export balances from the client’s Xero account into Excel to calculate rental return, variance and interest coverage.
“Some accountants just do BAS and quarterly tax returns which means they don’t need Excel at all. But if you do anything to actually help your clients then it’s a bugger,” Hinds says.
Google Apps’ cutting-edge approach has its drawbacks. The occasional glitch in Google’s servers or the internet connection can sometimes force users to log in again, McCall says.
The productivity suite is constantly being reviewed and updated. Sometimes menus and buttons can move with no warning or explanation, McCall adds, and have to be rediscovered and processes modified.
Another common complaint is the loss of time-saving macros. It is possible to recreate many macros in Google Apps Script, the programming equivalent, however there is no way to convert a macro automatically to Google Apps Script.
UK-based Riley Chartered Accountants rewrote its audit package in Google Apps and was happy with the result.
The greatest hurdle with Google Apps adoption is not feature set but compatibility with later document types in Microsoft Office. While Google Apps can open all .docx, .xlsx and .pptx files, sometimes data doesn’t display properly.
If a column or row of numbers disappears from a spreadsheet, an accountant might not even realise and make calculations based on incomplete data. One way around this is to ask customers to save spreadsheets in the .xls format, although this reduces the functionality of later versions of Office.
One factor often overlooked is that accountants may not want to give up on a program in which they have invested so much time in training and with which they are so familiar.
Paul Meissner of Five Ways Chartered Accountants says he is on the verge of moving to Google Apps for its ability to centralise email online and sync it across devices. He hasn’t quite committed yet, though.
“I love Excel. I designed my whole website in Excel, complete with colours. It’s the only program I know how to get everything out of.”
A recent Google Apps feature called Google Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office could prove to be a decisive step for businesses reluctant to give up Microsoft Office.
Cloud Connect lets Microsoft Office users save their documents directly to Google Apps, which gives them the advantages of Google’s cloud suite for email and document management while still using the familiar Microsoft suite for document creation and editing.
Google has been constantly improving Google Spreadsheet – it released the ability to make pivot tables just a month ago – and its advocates say that Excel’s superiority won’t last.
“I can tell you for free the gap is closing so damn quickly on the two that it won’t be long” before they reach feature parity, Cloud Adapt’s Granger-Horcombe says.
Dashboard Accounting partner Ian McCall’s top seven recommended programs from the Google Apps Marketplace.
Backupify – Backup
Clearformat – Email branding
Cloudlock – Security
GQueues – Task assigment, time management, agendas
Mindmeister – Brainstorming and mapping
Postini – Email archiving
Tungle – meeting co-oordination