TUAW Exclusive: Aaron Patzer on the future of mobile finance, Mint.com, and Quicken on the Mac

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TUAW Exclusive: Aaron Patzer on the future of mobile finance, Mint.com, and Quicken on the Mac

To the dismay of many, Mint sold to Intuit in September 2009 for $170 million. I say dismay because many users of Quicken products had been less than thrilled with Intuit's offerings for some time, and some people were concerned what a twenty-year-old company that seemed stuck in its ways would do with a popular user-friendly Web 2.0 startup.

Out of all the negative press, perhaps Mac users could be forgiven for having the most anxiety over the acquisition. Many had abandoned Quicken Mac 2007 in favor of Mint.com. Mac users wanted to move on from the stale Quicken ecosystem and go with something simple and easy. Now, that simple and easy solution had moved to where the users had escaped from.

Luckily, Intuit wasn't like other companies who buy smaller start-ups just to eliminate a competitor. Intuit recognized that Patzer and his team possessed the much-needed original financial software ideas and UI design mojo to put a spark in their aging products. In November 2009, Intuit made Aaron Patzer VP/GM of Intuit's Personal Finance Group -- which left him in charge of Intuit's personal finance offerings, including Quicken for Mac.
It was January 2008. At Macworld Expo, Steve Jobs had just unveiled the MacBook Air. Over at Intuit's booth, the company was previewing an anticipated update to Quicken Mac 2007 – one that didn't require Rosetta to run and didn't have an un-Mac-like UI. Unfortunately, the UI that Quicken ended up with consisted of a Cover Flow-esque interface. It was 2008 after all, and Cover Flow was the hot new UI element, but this was a finance app. We didn't need glitz when we just wanted to see how much cash we had in the bank. That aside, the single-window interface was a welcome change. Intuit announced that Quicken Mac 2007's sequel, Quicken Financial Life for Mac, would ship in the Fall of 2008.

Fall 2008 came and went. At Macworld Expo 2009, Intuit previewed a new beta of Quicken Financial Life for Mac and delayed its release again until Fall 2009. I was an early tester of the new beta, and it was buggy; the user interface looked friendlier than it actually was - in other words, the beta was everything you had come to expect from an Intuit product for the Mac. July 2009 came around and, no surprise, Intuit announced it was delaying Quicken Financial Life again, this time until 2010. 2010 - four years after the last version of Quicken for Mac came out (2007 was released in 2006). This time Intuit released a statement all but admitting that the company had failed at providing the Mac with usable financial software:
Feedback from Mac customers led us to rethink our approach to developing Quicken for Mac. We went back to the drawing board and are making changes to everything from what the program does to how it looks. We spent extra time building a reconcile mode for the new register, a robust Windows-to-Mac transfer function for new Mac users (and existing customers running Quicken on a Windows virtual machine), and redesigned the experience to make it look and feel like a native Mac application should.
At the same time, Intuit announced Quicken Financial Life for Mac would be available for pre-order from Intuit's site on October 12, 2009. Guess what happened? That's right. But at least this delay was only two months. By the time the product actually did go live with pre-orders many, including myself, thought it was too little, too late.

Luckily though, something happened at Intuit between the pre-order delay in October and the December pre-order release: Aaron Patzer was put in charge of Quicken Essentials for Mac (they scrapped the Quicken Financial Life name for a reason I'll get to in a moment).

I interviewed Aaron by phone yesterday and he had a lot of things to say about the frustration Mac users have with Intuit. Perhaps that's because he experienced the same frustration with Quicken - and that frustration led him to found Mint.com. Speaking with Aaron, I could hear the passion in his voice for simple products that allow users to easily access their data in a straightforward way.

Those original ideas and UI design mojo I mentioned earlier? Aaron put them to work right away. "When I first saw Quicken Financial Life, it had Cover Flow for no reason," he laughed. Cover Flow? No reason? Gone. "Quicken for Mac 2006 and 2007 were C/C++ programs that looked like bastardized versions of the Windows product. Little things matter," he told me. "In the old apps you would think you were supposed to press Command-A to select all of the entries in your registry, because that's what Command-A does on a Mac - it selects all. But in Quicken Mac 2007 it would actually bring up your accounts list. It's little things like that, that you could tell the people [writing the program] weren't real Mac aficionados."

Aaron himself uses a 15" MacBook Pro. The team that he spearheads for Quicken Essentials is a group of "Mac guys who live and breathe this stuff." The team consists of "five or six developers and three guys on QA with product managers coming on and off and the graphics guys switching between the Windows and Mac versions."

Speaking of Quicken on Windows, Aaron himself wrote the spec for the next version of Quicken for Windows (2011, due out later this year). Why is that important? Because Aaron has a clearly defined vision of what the future of financial software will look like. "You'll start to see the mess of all the [Intuit] products merged together. Longer term it shouldn't matter where you use your financial application, whether it's on the Mac, Windows, or Linux. I want to get everything to parity [on] the features and actually do the back-end so it's all a consistent single data model - probably based on Mint - and then just skin the front ends (applications) to look like a Mac product, to look like a Windows product, to look like an iPhone or an Android app - to take advantage of the unique advantages of those platforms. But the back-end would be the same so you can just migrate any time you want to from Mint.com to Quicken Essentials for Mac to your Android phone or iPhone."

Well, that sounds awesome, but what about people that have years worth of old Quicken data? "Eventually we will make it so you can just one-flip click your 20 years of data into the cloud and pull it down on any of these devices - that's the holy grail and it'll take over a year to do that,' he says. "But you can see that already in using the new QEM - it's using a lot of the same user experience paradigm (the way you budget on the Mac, the way you click through the pie charts) and that makes the back-end easier."

That's the larger picture, and after listening to Aaron's enthusiasm, if anyone can make it happen, it'll be him. Let's get back to Quicken Essentials for Mac, though.

"It's called Quicken Essentials for Mac because it's what we consider to be essential for most users - about 80% of users." It's not just what Aaron and his team think is essential; it's what people tell them they want. "We do a lot of usability studies, that's why Mint turned out the way it did. We applied the same to QEM. We went to people's homes and watched them use it. The majority of them just want to know: How much do I have? How much do I owe? How much do I spend on gas and food? How many times do I go to this restaurant? How many times do I go to Starbucks? What investments do I have? Let me set a budget to control my spending." Yeah, but what about the thing many arm-chair reviewers talk about? "Only 6% of users across all platforms use bill pay," Aaron says. "Most people still go to their bank's website to pay a bill."

What about other requested features, like deeper investment tools? That's where the future of Quicken on the Mac comes in. Intuit isn't abandoning the Mac platform anytime soon; in fact, they're embracing it: "For the next version of Quicken for the Mac we are planning two SKUs: Quicken Essentials and a Deluxe version which adds the deeper investment tools - history of investments, stock lots (buying shares of one stock at different times), etc."

You may rightly point out that Quicken for Windows and even the old Quicken for Mac supported these investment tools and that Quicken for Windows supports bill pay (for the paltry 6% who actually use it), but give it time. Aaron has only been on QEM for four months now, but has already helped completely reinvent Quicken on the Mac in that short timespan (yes, it's finally a Cocoa app). Though many may complain of the lack of investing/bill pay features, I can only liken Quicken Essentials for Mac to QuickTime X. Both apps have been rewritten from the ground up to replace clunky legacy code that would have slowed their scalability in the future. Just as QuickTime X is missing some of the features of QuickTime 7, Quicken Essentials for Mac is missing some of the features of Quicken Mac 2007 - for now. But because of the clean-sweep rewrites, these new applications are just the launching point for the programs into a better, more feature-rich future.

I've been playing with Quicken Essentials for Mac for a few days now (I'll have a full review of it on February 25) and I can already tell you, I'm a convert. I abandoned Quicken for Mint, but QEM has brought me back into the fold. It's worth it for the Cocoa rewrite alone.

What else does Intuit have in store for the Apple community? Aaron told me that after Mint releases its Android app, the team will be adding features to the next iPhone version. Some of those features include adding manual transactions - the ability to enter checks that haven't cleared yet, and an easier way to enter cash. "Doing that on the iPhone is probably the most useful way to do it because you are usually paying cash in a cab or buying a quick coffee with it." Another thing under consideration is an ATM locator. "We know which bank accounts you have so we can tell you which ATMs in your area are not gonna charge you a fee."

Also expect to see an iPad app. "Yes, it's something we've been looking into. Ideal implementation would be Mint's pie chart that you can click through and dive into to see Food-Dining-McDonald's, etc. Where you could use pinch to expand and contract." But the iPad app won't be available at launch and probably not before late summer at the earliest.

What about Aaron's brainchild? I use Mint for all my US accounts, but what about my UK bank accounts? Will the rest of the globe soon be able to utilize Mint.com? "Mint is working with the Global Division at Intuit, planning how to internationalize our code base." As Aaron points out, that's one of the advantages of such a large company taking over a Web 2.0 startup - the startup can use the company's resources to go further than it could have on its own. As for that large company? Well, something tells me that acquiring Mint and Aaron Patzer is the best thing that could ever have happened to Intuit - and you can take that to the bank.
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